Labels get tossed around a lot. They can carry a lot of weight. A couple popular labels in the energy space deserve clarity since they are in the news a lot: Renewable and carbon-free. Both are good. They do not mean the same thing.

Not all renewable energy sources are carbon-free.

Not all carbon-free energy sources are renewable.

Renewable energy sources naturally replace themselves.

Here’s a profile of all U.S. energy consumed. What is carbon-free vs renewable?

Major renewable energy sources are:

  • Biomass (burned to create power): A) Wood and wood waste, B)Municipal solid waste, C) Landfill gas and biogas, D) Ethanol, E) Biodiesel
    • Hydropower: Moving water spins a turbine to make power.
  • Geothermal: Heat from deep in the earth spins a turbine.
    • Wind: Spinning blades move the turbine.
    • Solar: Photo-voltaic panels make power

Carbon-free energy has no hazardous carbon air emissions. Think about nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, or solar.

There is waste from all sources. Nuclear plants have spent fuel to store. Biomass has ash from its burn. Solar has panels with hazardous materials that need to be managed after their use. Wind has blades and parts to dispose.

Opponents of these energy sources use the fact of the waste from these renewable resources to block them.  They suffer from a lack of perspective – managing these waste issues is minor compared to the costly issue of managing both waste and toxic emissions.  The perfect zero-waste, zero-emission energy source hasn’t been invented, and rejecting carbon-free sources of energy over manageable waste is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

In 2020, renewable energy provided about 11.59 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu), 1 quadrillion is the number 1 followed by 15 zeros – equal to 12% of total U.S. energy consumption. The power industry itself accounted for about 60% of total U.S. renewable energy consumption in 2020. (Source)

Know your energy labels for our future: Renewables are important. Carbon-free power is essential.


Below: Who is using renewable energy (2020)