If you’re looking to get involved with clean energy through investment, personal use, or political support, your first question might be “Which form of clean energy is the best?” It’s a good question but, unfortunately, it doesn’t have a clear answer.

Climate Impact:

If you’re interested in clean energy, you’re likely concerned about CO2. Looking at the total CO2 output of an energy source is a great place to start, but it isn't enough. The CO2 output of the whole lifecycle of the technology needs to be considered.

Guiding Questions:

  • How much CO2 is created at combustion/use?
  • How much CO2 is created through production process?
  • How well understood is this process? How likely is it that the full impact is not yet understood?
  • Can these processes be improved to further reduce CO2 output?
Environmental Impact:

It is important not to lose sight of the other environmental impacts in the scramble to reduce greenhouse gases. Each of the technologies in use today have their own set of environmental costs from production, use, and byproducts. Consider all possible sources of environmental harm to get the full picture.

Guiding Questions:

  • What are the inputs for this technology? How will those inputs be collected, transported, and processed?
  • What are the outputs of this process? Where will those outputs end up? What will their impacts be?
  • What land-use does this technology require? What natural processes will its presence interrupt?
  • How can these impacts be reduced or mitigated?
Social Impact:

Environmental issues affect people according to socioeconomic status. Those with the least will be the first to suffer the ill-effects of climate change. They are also more likely to live near health hazards like waste disposal facilities. These injustices contribute to growing inequality as poor communities face health and safety consequences of production that they do not benefit from.

Guiding Questions:

  • Who will suffer the effects of this technology?
  • How can the costs be reduced or shifted to protect vulnerable populations?
  • How can low-income communities be engaged in production to improve their economic standing?
Political Feasibility:

If you want a particular technology to succeed you need to be realistic about what can be implemented at the scale you want to work on. Public opinion needs to be on your side - or brought to your side - to get legislation passed.

Guiding Questions:

  • What will the cost be in the short- and long-term?
  • Will there be community opposition to implementing technology?
  • Can these obstacles be overcome with political and financial support?
Location, Location, Location:

Windmill, solar panels, and geothermal and hydroelectric plants all heavily depend on geographical factors. When you are looking at energy sources you need to consider how efficient it will be in your chosen area.

Guiding Questions:

  • What natural resources are most readily available in your area?
  • What space can be dedicated to clean energy technology?
  • Is there an opportunity to improve the area by adding these technologies?
Some Options to Consider:

Solar: In spite of recent tariffs, solar power is growing quickly in the United States. This technology has been around for many years and is constantly improving. Sunshine and mined materials required.

Wind: Wind is another growing energy producer in the United States. Wind farms are located largely in rural areas where they provide middle-class jobs. Wind power is inconsistent and requires pairing with other technologies to fulfill the full need of a power grid.

Nuclear: Nuclear power is an unpopular option, as reactors need to be near population centers where residents are afraid of a meltdown. However, this technology is relatively safe. In the U.S. a combination of laws make it difficult to open new reactors with better technologies. Clean, consistent energy is the upside of nuclear technology.

Geothermal: Geothermal energy is a reliable source of energy in places where it can be accessed. Buildings may be heated by geothermal energy anywhere, but to create power for the grid more energy is needed. In places where volcanic activity is near the surface, geothermal is a great clean energy option.

Emerging technologies: There are a number of technologies that have not yet been proven to be effective, scalable methods of clean energy production, but show promise. If you're looking for a high risk, high reward research investment, one of these emerging technologies might be for you. Before diving into this arena, learn what work has already been done and find key players to support going forward. Innovation is needed in this sector.

Policy Solutions: If you aren't comfortable picking a solution, don't. Instead, help to create policies that reward clean energy production and let the market pick the best clean energy. Make sure to keep all of the considerations listed above in mind so that your policy recommendations don't have unintended consequences.

Make the First Step:

Start with research and begin to answer the questions above - and others you think of along the way. Ultimately, you will have to make hard choices about what you can live with. Your priorities are your own, and be sure that you do not lose track of them in the maze of opinions that surrounds the clean energy debate. Do be prepared to change your mind after careful consideration of your options. Don’t be discouraged by the lack of a clear solution. This is an opportunity to get creative. Choose an option that has the most potential - the one that can be the best after improvements. Consider a combination of the above technologies. Decide the best way for you to contribute - financial, political, and personal support all have a place in the clean energy sector.


Original contribution by Clarissa Coburn.