How clean is "cleantech"?

The hot new clean dream: Coal.


Andrew Leonard
April 15, 2006 12:59AM (UTC)

"The new hot thing right now," an expert in socially responsible investing told me via e-mail recently, "are cleantech investments through the private equity platform." Cleantech. The word sounds oh so 21st century, summoning up visions of solar power cells and wind turbines. No more chimney stacks belching black smoke, or giant refineries breaking down oil into all manner of petroleum product. Cleantech, as defined by the Natural Resources Defense Council, refers to products and services that use technology to compete favorably on price and performance while reducing pollution, waste and use of natural resources" or, as one venture fund puts it, "they use new, innovative technology to create products and services that compete favorably on price and performance, while reducing mankind's impact on the environment."

Cleantech is socially responsible because it's clean, and cleanliness, as we've all been told, is next to godliness. But clean is not synonymous with renewable. For proof of that, one need only to note the increasing references to "clean coal" in the context of cleantech.

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No joke. Clean coal, says writer Catherine Lacoursiere at RenewableEnergyStocks.com, is becoming "hot" in the "cleantech sector." According to Cleantechblog, "the reality is that the world has a lot of coal and its major energy consumers, including China and the United States, have placed clean coal at the center of their clean energy strategies."

There is no doubt that there are interesting technological developments in the wings that could make generating electricity and diesel fuel from coal far cleaner than is currently standard practice. Coal gasification technology could allow for the capture of carbon dioxide emissions for safe sequestration. But then again, ask the citizens of West Virginia just how "clean" the process of mining coal via mountaintop removal is. No matter how clean you call the technology, generating power from coal is still environmentally suspect, especially given the current state of carbon sequestration.

Yes, there's a tremendous amount of coal in the ground, and the speedy deployment of coal gasification plants with integrated carbon sequestration could be a major element in dealing with the challenges of peak oil. But when clean coal starts being equated with cleantech, you start to wonder what else is waiting in the wings to slip into socially responsible investing portfolios under the semiotic cover of "clean." Nuclear power doesn't generate greenhouse gases. Is it clean, too? "Renewable" is a nice word, because its meaning is clear. But "clean"? Seems a little murky.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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