Should Sustainable Energy Sources be Included in Clean Energy Policy?
Going Green with Brown
What’s the difference between sustainable energy and renewable energy? While there is some overlap in the definitions, there are also some differences. The differences can impact policy, ultimately affecting how energy infrastructure projects are developed as companies look to maximize feedstocks for energy generation and meet renewable portfolio requirements.
One recent example of this is the $550bn clean energy investment bill that was passed by the US Senate in July 2021. The term “clean energy” doesn’t accurately define the renewable energy sources it favors, which leaves out viable sustainable energy sources.
As we look to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and seek more renewable and sustainable sources of energy, we must ask: Is it time to make sustainable energy sources part of the equation?
Sustainable Energy Vs. Renewable Energy
Johns Hopkins defines renewable energy as “sources that naturally renew themselves at a rate that allows us to meet our energy needs.” Another way to think of renewable energy is power generated by natural sources such as wind, water, the earth, and the sun.
Sustainable energy is defined as “sources that can fulfill our current energy needs without compromising future generations.” These are sources the earth doesn’t produce but that we can leverage to fulfill our energy needs, such as waste produced by humans.
The subtle differences between renewable and sustainable can greatly impact how an energy project is developed. For waste-to-energy projects, if a feedstock is not determined to be a renewable source, it can impact the economics and therefore deter the development of a project. For this reason, including sustainable energy sources in energy policy can have an immediate impact on energy development.
Renewable May Not be Reliable
Renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, wind, solar, and wind) may not always be available and may not meet the entire energy demand package. There is debate on using hydropower as a renewable source. However, the recent droughts in California have now shown the risks associated with hydropower for electricity generation. Other sources of generation are needed to prevent grid disruption.
As communities look for innovative ways to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint and dependency on fossil fuels, they can consider sustainable energy feedstock sources.
Waste as Sustainable Feedstock
Global waste generation is continuing to grow despite the call for a reduction in waste production. Waste generation is predicted to increase by an estimated 70% by 2050. Continued population growth is a contributing factor along with other factors for this estimation. Additionally, the cost to bury waste is only increasing.
Waste is by no means a renewable source, however, waste-to-energy generation can be sustainable. The diversion of waste being buried in landfills does have environmental benefits. It has been proven the diversion of organic wastes to anaerobic digestion can produce a renewable natural gas reducing methane production. As thermochemical conversion technologies continue to improve there is an opportunity to divert other waste streams.
Putting Sustainable Policy in Motion
Policymakers and communities should consider how they can incorporate these technologies into sustainability planning. Creating viable plans and economic packages will create a pathway for sustainable energy generation. However, these plans are not viable if they are not executable. Therefore, there has to be support and a clear path to move these plans forward. This starts with leadership understanding the difference between renewable and sustainable.
Economic and permitting incentives for sustainable energy would create a path for developers and utilities to seek innovative projects to create a more robust energy package and more resilient grid. Sustainable energy needs to be seen as a side-by-side approach with renewable energy.