Clean Energy vs Green Energy: What’s the Difference?
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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. So we had to ask: What’s the difference between 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 type||Energy source|
|Both Clean and Green Energy||Solar
|Only Clean but not Green Energy||Nuclear|
|Only Green but not Clean Energy||–|
|Renewable energy that is neither Clean nor Green||Large Hydropower
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.
- Solar Energy: photovoltaic cells in solar panels absorb energy from sunlight, creating an electrical charge that moves in response to an internal electric field in the cell and creates electricity. This process is renewable because the sun will continue to emit energy until it goes supernova. It is also clean because no GHGs are emitted during operation. Following proper disposal methods of hazardous chemicals associated with PVCs and placing solar panels in less populated areas or on top of buildings minimizes any negative environmental impacts, making it a green energy source.
- 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.
- Geothermal Energy: drilling down to hot water reservoirs creates steam that rotates a turbine, which spins a generator to generate electricity. This process is renewable because the Earth has an almost unlimited supply of heat generated by its core, and the water extracted from the reservoirs can be recycled via re-injection into the ground. It is also clean because although it does release minute amounts of carbon dioxide, the amount is very small. Negative environmental impacts are minimized by only drilling to shallow depths, siting power plants away from major fault lines, and properly disposing of hazardous waste captured by the scrubbers, making it a green energy source.
- Low-Impact Hydropower: projects that generate 10 MW or less of power. Flowing water turns turbines, which spins a generator to generate electricity. This process is renewable because the water cycle is a continuous process that recharges itself. It is also clean because, on a small scale, hydropower produces very few GHGs. Installing small turbines in irrigation canals, water-treatment plant outfalls, and existing hydroelectric facilities mitigates emissions and environmental impact, 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.
- Biomass: Wood, agricultural crops, biogenic materials, animal manure, and human sewage contain stored chemical energy from the sun which is burned for heat or converted to fuel. It is not clean because the combustion of biomass materials releases sequestered carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides in the biomass material into the atmosphere. Albeit, the amount released is much less than is released from fossil fuels. It is also not green because the biomass industry is responsible for clearcutting forests and reducing both plant and animal biodiversity.
- Large Hydropower: facilities that have a capacity of more than 30 megawatts (MW). Flowing water turns turbines, which spins a generator to generate electricity. This process is not clean because the construction of large hydroelectric facilities and biomass decomposition in the reservoirs produces GHG emissions (e.g. carbon dioxide and methane), although the rate of emissions is much lower than that of fossil fuels. It is also not green because large dams that create reservoirs can obstruct fish migration, alter the water temperature and chemistry, and flood out adjacent lands.
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 Energy||Green Energy|
|Benefits||No GHG emissions, non-polluting||Reduces carbon footprint, air pollution, and water environmental impacts; infinite energy supply; promotes decentralization; potentially no GHG emissions and non-polluting|
|Drawbacks||Some have Intermittent production, geographic limitations, or nuclear waste byproducts||High 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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.
- TWI: What is Clean Energy? How Does it Work? Why is it so Important?
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: What is Green Power?
- High Country Conservation Center: What’s the Difference Between Clean & Renewable Energy?
- Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: How Does Solar Work?
- Union Of Concerned Scientists: Environmental Impacts of Solar Power
- Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Advantages and Challenges of Wind Energy
- Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: How Do Wind Turbines Work?
- Union Of Concerned Scientists: Environmental Impacts of Wind Power
- Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Geothermal FAQs
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Geothermal Electricity Production Basics
- Brittanica: Geothermal – Environmental Effects And Economic Costs
- Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: How Hydropower Works
- Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Types of Hydropower Plants
- National Hydropower Association: Small Hydro
- National Geographic: Non-Renewable Energy
- Brittanica: Nuclear Fission
- World Nuclear Association: Uranium Mining Overview
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Biomass Explained
- Natural Resources Defense Council: Biomass – Not Carbon Neutral and Often Not Clean
- Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation: Dangerous delusions: biomass is not a renewable energy source
- Synapse Energy Economics Inc.: Hydropower Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Hydropower and the environment
- Green Mountain Energy: Benefits of Clean Electricity
- Impactful Ninja: How Does the Smart Grid System Benefit the Environment
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Guide to Purchasing Green Power
- White House Archives: Fact Sheet – Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Summary of the Energy Independence and Security Act
- International Renewable Energy Agency: Renewable Energy Jobs Continue Growth to 11.5 Million Worldwide
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Renewable Energy Explained
- Our World in Data: Share of Primary Energy from Renewable Sources