Clean Energy vs Green Energy: What’s the Difference?

Clean Energy vs Green Energy: What’s the Difference?

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Grace Smoot

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You have probably heard the terms clean and green when talking about energy sources. They may have even been used interchangeably. But did you know that they have two different meanings? To make informed decisions about how we generate our energy, we must identify the differences, benefits, and drawbacks of both clean and green energy. 

Clean energy is the generation of energy that does not produce greenhouse gas emissions. Green energy is the generation of energy from infinite sources that does not produce carbon emissions or negatively impact the environment. Knowing their differences can help combat our current climate crisis.

Both clean and green energy sources are sustainable energy options to replace fossil fuels (e.g. coal and natural gas). So how do we tell the difference between them? Which energy sources are classified as clean? Green? Both? Below we will define both terms and have a look at which of the six major non-fossil energy sources fall into each category.

How Are Clean Energy and Green Energy Defined

The end goal of fossil fuel (e.g., coal and oil) alternatives is to reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And clean and green energy are no exception. 

What Does the Dictionary Say About Clean Energy and Green Energy

Both clean and green energy have the same end goals of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and combating global climate change. But there are still some differences between these two.

Clean Energy: energy, as electricity or nuclear power, that does not pollute the atmosphere when used, as opposed to coal and oil”

Collins Dictionary

Clean energy is derived from processes that do not release GHG emissions into the atmosphere.

Green Energy: energy that can be produced in a way that protects the natural environment, for example by using wind, water, or the sun”

Cambridge Dictionary

Green energy is a subset of renewable energy that includes a zero-emissions profile and carbon footprint reductions to provide the highest environmental benefit. 

Both clean and green energy sources do not emit GHGs, but only green energy sources have the added benefits of being renewable and not negatively impacting the environment. 

What Do These Differences Mean

Clean energy and green energy have different ramifications on our environment because of the nuances in their definitions:

  • If energy is only clean but NOT green: the generation of energy does not produce GHGs (or other pollution), but either the resource is non-renewable and/or it has negative effects on the environment.
  • If energy is only green but NOT clean: This category does not exist because all green energy is by definition also clean energy. Green energy is renewable, does not emit GHGs, and does not harm the environment, while clean energy “only” does not emit GHGs (but may have a finite resource supply or harm the environment). 

Essentially, clean energy means zero GHG emissions, without determining whether the resource is renewable or can potentially harm the environment. Green energy is renewable and neither pollutes the atmosphere nor harms the environment.

What Are the Differences and Similarities Between Clean Energy and Green Energy

The best way to lower your carbon footprint is to choose energy sources that are both clean AND renewable. 

Energy typeEnergy source
Both Clean and Green EnergySolar
Wind
Geothermal
Low-Impact Hydropower
Only Clean but not Green EnergyNuclear
Only Green but not Clean Energy
Renewable energy that is neither Clean nor GreenLarge Hydropower
Biomass

Classifying an energy source as clean, green, both, or neither requires an in-depth look at the longevity of the resource, the carbon emissions profile, and its impact on the environment. 

Which Energies are Both Clean Energy and Green Energy

If energy is both clean AND green, the generation of energy does not produce GHGs or harm the environment, and the resource is renewable.

  • Wind Energy: wind turns the blades of wind turbines around a rotor, which spins a generator to generate electricity. This process is renewable because as long as the wind blows, wind power can be harnessed. It is also clean because no GHGs are emitted during its operation. Land use, wildlife impact, and public health concerns are mitigated by proper planning and siting of wind farms, making it a green energy source.

Solar, wind, geothermal, and low-impact hydropower are all examples of BOTH green and clean energy because their generation does not produce GHG emissions or harm the environment, and their resource supply renewable.

Which Energies Are Only Clean Energy But Not Green Energy

If energy is only clean but NOT green, the generation of energy does not produce GHGs, but it is either nonrenewable or negatively impacts the environment.

  • Nuclear Energy: in nuclear fission, an enormous amount of energy is released when electromagnetic radiation is used to split the nucleus of a uranium atom (U-235). The process of nuclear fission is clean because it does not produce GHG emissions, but nuclear energy is not green because it does require mining, extraction, and long-term radioactive waste storage which are threats to the environment. It is also not renewable because there is a finite supply of U-235, the uranium isotope used in nuclear power plants, on Earth. We have already used up most of our U-235 because it has a half-life of about 700 million years.

Nuclear energy is clean because the generation of energy does not produce GHGs. It is not green though because mining, extraction, and long-term radioactive waste storage are threats to the environment, and U-235 is a nonrenewable resource. 

Which Renewable Energies Are Neither Clean Nor Green

If energy is NEITHER clean NOR green, the energy source is either nonrenewable, produces GHG emissions, harms the environment, or all of the above. They are still important in the fight against climate change though, as we will see later on! Below are the energy sources that are neither clean nor green.

Just because an energy source is neither clean nor green, doesn’t mean we should discount it as a replacement for fossil fuels. Biomass and large hydropower are both renewable energies. Implementing technology to reduce the level of GHG emissions and protect the environment can increase their viability as fossil-fuel substitutes.

Why Is it Important to Differentiate Difference Between Clean and Green Energy

Understanding and differentiating between the benefits and drawbacks of clean and green energy is important when discussing their implications on our environment. 

Clean EnergyGreen Energy
BenefitsNo GHG emissions, non-pollutingReduces carbon footprint, air pollution, and water environmental impacts; infinite energy supply; promotes decentralization; potentially no GHG emissions and non-polluting
DrawbacksSome have Intermittent production, geographic limitations, or nuclear waste byproductsHigh up-front cost; some have intermittent production, geographic limitations, lower quantities of energy produced

Clean energy does not produce GHG emissions, or any other environmental pollution, which aids in the fight against global climate change. However, clean energy possesses geographic limitations and offers intermittent production peaks depending on weather conditions (that could highly benefit from a smart grid). Also, when it comes to nuclear energy, safe storage and containment of nuclear waste byproducts (radioactive waste) is a big and still unsolved concern.

Green Energy is a more specific category of renewable energy that provides higher environmental benefits than renewables. It can also reduce carbon footprints, air pollution, and water environmental costs. However, green energy possesses geographic limitations and offers intermittent production peaks depending on weather conditions (that could highly benefit from a smart grid). 

Both clean and green energy are an integral part of helping us overcome our current climate crisis. This is why it is important to know the difference between the two!

How Do Clean and Green Energy Benefit the Environment

So, how could clean and green energy help us overcome our climate crisis? Some of the benefits include:

  1. Climate Change Mitigation: clean and green energy do not emit carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, or mercury into the atmosphere, soil, or water. These pollutants are known to contribute to the thinning of the ozone layer, global sea-level rise, and the melting of our world’s glaciers. 
  1. Energy Independence: Being able to produce our own electricity in the U.S. without the aid of foreign countries is an important step to help us become more self-sufficient instead. Former President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to reduce U.S. dependence on oil, expand the production of renewable fuels (and confront global climate change). 
  1. Employment Opportunities: The renewable energy sector employed 11.5 million people worldwide in 2019, with solar energy making up the bulk of those jobs. Renewable energy jobs continue to increase as we start to realize just how beneficial renewable energy is for our environment. 

Renewable energy accounted for 11% of total energy consumption in the United States in 2019. This was equal to the amount of coal consumption and was nearly three times greater than consumption in 2000. Experts predict renewable resource consumption will continue to increase through 2050 as more and more effort is put into reducing global GHG emissions. 

However, we still have a long way to go to make clean or renewable energy sources our primary form of energy. As seen below, only a very few countries have renewables as their primary energy source. The vast majority of countries still have a long way to go before clean and green energy sources are providing the bulk of their energy.

Our World in Data: Share of primary energy from renewable sources

Final Thoughts

Although clean and green are sometimes used interchangeably, they mean two different things. Green energy is a more specific and strict definition reserved for the energy sources that provide the highest environmental benefit. All green energy is also clean energy by definition, but the reverse is not true. Clean energy is non-polluting but has the potential to harm the environment and/or maybe nonrenewable. 

Large hydropower and biomass are neither clean nor green. But this does not mean they are necessarily bad choices as substitutes for fossil fuels! Assessing the longevity of the resource, documenting the level of GHG emissions, and formulating ways to minimize negative environmental impacts can still make these energies viable fossil-fuel replacements.

Stay impactful,

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