Clean energy or renewable energy? The label matters!

A prominent German academic who works in the US is now making the rounds in Germany with a proposal: stop talking about renewables and start talking about “clean energy.” Craig Morris explains why the idea is counterproductive.

windmill and nuclear plant

One of these things is not like the other: “clean” vs renewable energy (Photos left Stefan Kühm, right Jürgen, edited, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Elisabeth Wehling is a linguist working with George Lakoff at the University of California in Berkeley. Lakoff himself has been active in the political sphere since the early 90s at least. His main idea, which Wehling also presents to German audiences, is framing: how you contextualize something affects the debate. The title of Lakoff’s book Don’t think of an elephant itself shows how framing works: once you have said “elephant,” no one can’t think about it. The lesson is that myth-busting reinforces the basic idea claimed even though it is untrue.

Lakoff and Wehling are right that we need to embed our arguments offensively in our own language, not just defensively rebut – and repeat the myths we wish to dispel in the process. But the devil is in the details, and Wehling’s recent statements at an awards ceremony in Berlin are an excellent example. (I did not attend the event myself but base my remarks on this skeptical German report.)

Wehling said the Germans should stop talking about “renewables” and start saying “clean energy.” The problem, as the skeptical German journalist points out, is that no one knows what “clean” means:

“… when they speak of clean energy, a lot of European politicians as well as renewable energy associations in the UK include nuclear power and new coal plants with lower carbon emissions…. They do not want a true Energiewende, but a mere modernization of energy supply, in which wind, solar, and bioenergy and other regenerative sources such as geothermal will complement a low-carbon conventional power plant fleet. These people do not, however, take part in the discussion about long-term radioactive waste disposal or underground CO2 storage.”

And here’s the weird part: Lakoff himself once wrote the same thing. Here’s a passage from Elephant:

“… conservatives can counter the science using the right language. People who support environmentalist positions like certain words. They like the words healthy, clean, and safe because these words fit frames that describe what the environment means to them. Therefore, {conservative advisor Frank} Luntz says, use the words healthy, clean, and safe whenever possible, even when talking about coal plants or nuclear power plants. It is this kind of Orwellian weakness that causes a piece of legislation that actually increases pollution to be called the Clean Skies Act.”

So 12 years ago, Lakoff himself would have told his younger colleague Wehling that trading in “renewables” for “clean energy” is Orwellian.

Decades of German debate

The strange thing is that German-born Wehling does not seem to be aware of the German debate; she simply marches into it with proposals from the US, as though they would work anywhere. In reality, the Germans talked a lot about what to call renewables for a long time, but the discussion also ended long ago.

Back in the 1970s, when photovoltaics was still a technology for outer space, the German Research Ministry dealt with it (and wind power) in a division called “non-nuclear, non-fossil energy.” As German solar pioneer Hermann Scheer put it, “the double negation really said it all.” That decade, “alternative energy” and even “additive energy” became the main buzzword, but both also implicitly sidelined renewables by insinuating that the main thing was something else. “Regenerative energy” is also found in German but has clearly failed to take center stage, as the chart below shows. Clearly, “erneuerbare Energien” (renewables) is the winner. Meanwhile the debate rages on in the US over whether nuclear is part of the clean energy basket.


Occurrences of various German terms for renewables in published books from 1970 until 2008, the last year tallied by Google. (Source: Google’s Ngram viewer)

Linguistic evidence of the US turning its attention away from solar: occurrences of the word “photovoltaics” in books published in English. The country researched solar energy heavily starting with President Carter in the later 1970s but never returned to that level. (Source: Google’s Ngram viewer)

The Germans came to solar power later but have remained committed at a higher level. (Source: Google’s Ngram viewer)

And that’s the main drawback of Wehling’s proposal: it’s a solution from the US to a problem that Germany does not have. The Germans have put this terminology discussion to rest and now have a clear goal. Americans continue to discuss which direction is best and therefore cannot clearly move in any direction.

Whether those outside the US (with different problems) can learn much from Lakoff and Wehling is therefore questionable. He has had input high up in the Democratic Party for at least 12 years, though he still charges they do not listen to him enough. His Rockridge Institute, which aimed to educate leftist politicians about framing, was short-lived, and he bailed fairly early on. Mainly, what he does well is describe the problems in US political discourse, as I’ll explain in a future post.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. Yes. “Renewable” is more precise, hence much harder to misappropriate. It would be possible for the oil and coal industries to claim that these energy sources are renewable on a timetable of 100 million years, but they haven’t had the chutzpah. Geothermal has a slight problem here: the reserves are in fact degraded by extraction over a timetable of multiple decades, and recover in a similar timeframe as heat percolates up from the Earth’s sustainably hot core. So most sources accept it’s renewable.

  2. RRMeyer says

    How cute comparing 3 wind turbines with Cattenom in the picture. In 2015 Cattenom provided 36 TWh of clean electricity while the 26000 Wind turbines installed in Germany provided 85 TWh. If you were interested in honesty you would compare 2760 Wind turbines with the quarter of Cattenom shown in the picture.

    • RRMeyer says

      Correction: German wind output 2015 was only 79TWh, I used the inflated data posted by AEGB and only corrected 6 months later.
      As the picture shows one reactor and 2 cooling towers, maybe we should compare with 4000 wind turbines? Also, a fleet of nuclear reactors gives you a high amount of security of supply which a fleet of wind turbines, even combined with solar, manifestly does it. Maybe firm it up with pumped hydro? Google “Ringwallspeicher” to get an idea of the scale of what would be required just to replace 2 nuclear reactors. So intermittend renewables will only ever be supplements to a largely fossil fuel powered grid. No threat to the fossil fuel industry and therefore heavily promoted by their sycophants.

  3. RRMeyer says

    The atmosphere does not care about labels, it cares about emissions. In a broader context, nature cares about ecological impacts. On both counts, nuclear is the best technology we have.
    Arbitrary labelling only unthreatening technologies as acceptable and then, among the unacceptable technologies, singling out nuclear for first elimination is a game the fossil fuel lobby has played for decades. You would think the latest climate data would make some fossil fuel apologists reconsider their role in the destruction of the biosphere, but no.

  4. RRMeyer says

    For an interesting correlation with the “books about solar in the US” chart, look at this:
    Just as nuclear power was taking off, people were more and more talking about solar. How very useful for the fossil fuel industry, as solar only started producing meaningful amounts of energy 30-40 years later. The fossil fuel moguls were extremely apt at shaping the puplic debate, using just the framing techniques that Craig illustrated.
    Jimmy Carter is a case in point. He talked about the dangers of nuclear and installed solar panels on the White House. He also promised the coal industry a golden future with much increased production.
    Anybody with a real concern about the state of the climate should look at the economist chart again, and ponder what opportunities were missed, how this happened, and, above all: Cui bono?

  5. RRMeyer says

    The other renewable energy in the rhs picture shows how dangerously misleading the renewable label is. Energy crops (rapeseed) as far as the eye can see. The chernobyl exclusion zone is much healthier for wildlife than this pesticide-soaked monoculture wasteland.
    But it is renewable. Hooray! No matter that the EROEI is only between 2 and 3, meaning that nearly half the energy content of the rapeseed oil is used to feed this process. No matter that we life on a finite planet and that farming for food is already one of the biggest strains we put on the environment.
    No, because of the irrational green aversion of nuclear power, we massively increase the farming problem for trifling amounts of energy.

  6. Hans says

    At the moment Uranium extraction from seawater is still science fiction. A bit early to bet on it. Even though there may be quite a lot uranium in the sea, you are still consuming it. This does not fit the definition of renewable.

    Nobody is saying Britain should be completely powered by geothermal. You are attacking a strawman.

  7. Hans says

    Rapeseed fuels are indeed a dead-end technology. The main reasons these are supported are an agricultural lobby and because it is a lazy solution: you can use the existing infrastructure, and only change the fuel. The same is true for Maize/Corn for electricity.

    Chernobyl is not the wildlife h(e)aven you think it to be:

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