Understanding Energy Quality

Clean Energy Is Not Created Equal

In the the low-fat food movement of the 90s, consumers were concerned about the rise in heart disease and believed that if a product was labeled as “fat-free”, it would be good for them. It turns out that nutrition is more complicated, and consumers were further led astray as the food industry simply replaced the fat with added sugar, leading to increases in new health problems such as obesity and diabetes. It took years for this understanding to develop, and for better nutrition and health practices to be commonplace.

Today, “carbon neutral” is at risk of becoming a similarly misunderstood term. While using “carbon neutral” energy does require taking action to account for carbon emissions, the different ways of doing so have very different immediate impacts on the climate.

All clean energy is not created equal, and these charts help explain how they are different.

For example, a company that uses 100% renewable energy sources in real-time will produce far fewer emissions than another that uses standard electricity from the grid, but offsets their emissions through compensatory measures like planting trees or landfill gas capture. Both will be considered “carbon neutral”, but the former has minimal impact on the climate, while the latter has significant immediate impact (that they hope to “undo” in the near future).

In-depth explanation of each energy type and its impact on the climate.
Abbreviated chart illustrating the relative ranking of energy types based on their climate impact.