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Clean vs. Alternative vs. Renewable

Would you prefer "alternative" energy or "renewable" energy? What about "clean" energy? Thrown together like this, you probably recognize that they all refer to more-or-less the same thing. Used in isolation, however, they tend to prompt different reactions from people. Clint Wilder, contributing editor at Clean Edge, argues that "clean" energy tends to get the best reaction, based on a recent study:

In opinion research conducted last year in Rhode Island, the Clean Energy States Alliance and marketing consultancy SmartPower found that the label of “clean” energy had a much more positive public reception than “green” (too political), “renewable” (too niche), or “alternative” (too much of an implication that its users must adopt a new lifestyle).

If you read WorldChanging closely, you'll notice that we rarely use the term "alternative" to describe wind, solar and other non-polluting energy sources. That's intentional (at least for me): "alternative" cedes the ground to polluting sources, because if they're not the alternative, they must be the mainstream choice. In the Bright Green future we see as happening, sources such as wind, solar, tides and such won't be the other choice, they'll be what we all increasingly will rely upon. I've tended to use "renewable" instead, but Wilder makes a good point. "Renewable" is probably a bit too focused on a technical aspect (as with "fossil fuels"); "clean" energy is a clearer meme, and I'll be sure to add that to the editorial mix in my posts.

Wilder's essay is well-worth reading, although it centers a bit too much on "reframing." If there's a political meme destined soon to join "soccer mom" and "NASCAR dad" in the purgatory of "shoot me if I read it again," reframing is it. We're guilty of using it ourselves, of course, and the concept it describes -- changing the course of an argument through the use of new terms with different underlying contextual connotations -- remains valid. But don't be surprised if it disappears from the language landscape in the not-too distant future.

Comments (14)

"Clean" is a very subjective term and tends to get hijacked by nuclear, natural gas, and even coal advocates ("clean coal"). A local chain of gasoline stations here even sells "Blue Planet" gasoline, which is of course completely ridiculous ("clean" gas!).

"Renewable" might not be as saleable, but it's much more defensible in meaning, as none of the three above can claim to be renewable (though the breeder reactor folks sure try).

How about "Survivable Energy"?

Jamais Cascio:

Mikhail -- so you did. That tells me to pay more attention to your blog.

Re: "clean" already hijacked by unclean groups: Good point, and that definitely would undercut the power of referring to solar/wind/etc. as 'clean' if the immediate reaction becomes "what are they hiding?"

"Survivable energy"... sounds ominous, but is probably the most accurate of the bunch.

How about "eternal energy"?


"Sustainable energy" best describes, I think, what we're looking for. Certainly that was the choice of the "Northeast Sustainable Energy Association," a great group to which I belong.

Tony Wang:

It seems as though this comment discussion is surrendering the word clean because others can abuse it - which I think is absurd. What needs to and what I predict will happen is that people will intuitively understand what clean means. And as more people cooperate, standards will be adopted around the term clean, just like the term fair trade. Sure, people can abuse the term fair too, but the good guys are winning because they're right.


Why not just call it the squeaky clean energy source and show a guy cleaning the solar cells with a squeagy? Or the same with a windturbine and then have a guy climb the thing and oil it to stop it squeaking.

You can do 1000x more with humor.

How about "clean, renewable"? Get's the "clean" in there, but makes it clear that it doesn't include nuclear and fossils.

Alton Naur:

I like "end-to-end clean" myself, but could go for renewable clean, too. "Renewable" by itself is not really a good idea. Consider geothermal energy, which is unlimited on any human timescale, but extraordinarily dirty, releasing large quantities of acids and sulfur that would otherwise stay safely undergound without power plants pumping them out into the biosphere.


End to end clean has a certain connotation you realy dont want...cough.

David Locke:

Alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells are not in fact clean. Hydrogent fuel cells will put water where it doesn't belong or relocate it where there is already too much.

Find a totally new word. Eventually, the conuntercases will put out enough press releases to make the word meaningless, so goes lexical warfare.

both 'clean' and 'renewable' are annoyingly euphemistic, but they refer to distinctly different things that reflect distinctly different policy priorities. talking about vehicle fuels, 'clean fuels' = natural gas, which is in fact much cleaner than ethanol or biodiesel, the 'renewable fuels'. if you care about air quality and the rural environment, you emphasize clean fuels - if you're looking to win support from the farming lobby and/or green neo-cons, you go with renewables.

personally, I value natural gas's increased benefits to human health and decreased environmental impact compared to ethanol, especially since, as the more recent post on the SusBus technology demonstrates, natural gas fuels are in fact becoming 'renewable'. future breakthroughs in methane bio-production and perhaps methane hydrate recovery could also help to make the hyping of economically and environmentally wasteful 'renewable' fuels seem an anachronistic and thankfully temporary practice.


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