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Reframing the energy debate, Part 1: Time to stop using the phrase “renewable energy”

[This is the first in an occasional series on reframing the energy and climate debate. I welcome all ideas on how we can improve our language in what is now the central front in the war to protect the health and well-being of American families and all future generations.]

The phrase “renewable energy” is often used by the media and conservatives to give lip service to clean energy sources — by lumping them all together in order to trivialize them or diminish their individual potential. For instance, the “bunch of bland old guys” had just one bullet for renewables (and one for efficiency), thereby making them equivalent to expanded domestic oil and gas production, expanded nuclear production, and “clean coal”.

Progressives, I think, should stop using the phrase “renewable energy” entirely. It is lazy and fits into the conservative frame of renewable energy sources as individually insignificant. We should go out of our way to specify them, since several of them have come of age.

Take concentrated solar thermal power. No, I’m not thrilled with the name — how about baseload solar thermal? [Yes, I realize that solar thermal with storage isn’t so much baseload as it is load following (peaking during midday), but, heck, that is even better than baseload. In any case, conservatives keep dismissing renewables as non-baseload, and the phrase is certainly more accurate than “clean coal.” Yes, not all solar thermal has storage, but it is the stuff with storage that has the big upside. And while nobody knows what baseload solar thermal is, based on my media interviews, few people know what concentrated solar power is either, so you’re going to have to explain it either way.]

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Baseload solar thermal is almost certainly going to provide more power every year this century than “clean coal” does (see “Concentrated solar thermal power — a core climate solution).”

And new windpower in this country could easily exceed new nuclear power (see Wind Power — A core climate solution). Indeed, if we’re smart, it will greatly exceed it.

I have long used the phrase “solar photovoltaics” for clarity, but since we have a completely different type of solar and since PV has come of age, I would recommend just saying “photovoltaics.”

Thus, my recommendation is to give them individually equal weight, as in “windpower, photovoltaics, and baseload solar thermal.” And if you want to throw in geothermal, that is fine with me, though I tend to think that would require a bigger effort to achieve significant post-2020 capacity, and I personally think the first three are enough, along with energy efficiency, for now (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?”).

I would also avoid the use of the word “balance,” since it is principally used by the same people who lump all of renewables together. For conservatives, a balanced energy policy includes shale! Note also Senator Jon Kyl’s statement: “I just want to briefly note that Senator McCain’s energy policy is a balanced policy.”

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When I was at the Department of Energy in the 1990s, the administration made us use the word ‘balance’. Now we have to deliver the message, as Vice President Gore did, that we need an unbalanced energy policy, one that is focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy windpower, photovoltaics, and baseload solar thermal.