Say what? We need a new way to talk about clean energy

March 9, 2022

Ever wondered how the photovoltaic power of a residential solar + storage system (solar array working in tandem with a battery storage system) uses net metering while producing net zero emissions? Did that sentence make sense to you? If not, you’re probably not the only one. 

When it comes to talking about clean energy and renewables, there is so much technical jargon thrown around that the average person can quickly lose interest. The incredible benefits these technologies can bring to our lives – and to the planet – can get lost in terminology that sounds like a foreign language to many of us.

A debate about how cleantech terms need a rebrand emerged on Twitter recently on the hot topic (pun intended) of heat pumps. As worded, these devices sound merely like something involved in heating your home. On the contrary, heat pumps act more like a “home comfort system” that both heat and cool. Even more importantly, they are a readily available climate solution that helps reduce gas emissions and pollution. 

In order for the majority of Americans to catch on to clean energy, cleantech gurus need to make these terms more accessible and meaningful.  To get this conversation started, we’ve taken a few super important words and phrases in the clean energy lexicon and paired them with some analogies to help them (hopefully) make more sense.

Net metering

Net metering is a techie-sounding term that belies an incredible opportunity to transform people’s relationship to energy in their homes and communities. Are we exaggerating? We’ll say more and you can decide. 

Net metering is what allows your solar panels to produce energy from your rooftop while saving you money on your electric bills. If your panels generate extra power from the sun’s rays that you don’t need, your utility company will give you a credit for it (that is, if net metering is offered in your state. It is in most.). This billing mechanism with a boring name should really be called, “sun dollars” or even “energy freedom.”

A 2017 public opinion poll found that most Americans support net metering, including 62% of “very conversative” respondents. However, utilities have long attempted to rollback net metering because it threatens their profits. Legislation is currently on the table in both California and Florida that threatens to repeal net metering altogether (Florida) or regulate it in a way that could benefit utilities (California). 


Net-zero: the state in which the amount of non-carbon emitting energy procured by an entity is equal to the amount of carbon-emitting energy used. In other words, buying renewable energy or carbon offsets to balance out the non-renewable energy. It’s like when you eat a full pizza by yourself, and then to make yourself feel better, you immediately go run a marathon to “run it off.”

Net-zero is a very good thing in theory, and many corporations and governments are pledging to become net-zero as part of their climate commitments. But as the New York Times climate desk explains in this helpful overview of climate buzzwords, “when governments or companies pledge to go net-zero, they’re not always promising to stop emitting carbon dioxide altogether. Often they’re saying that they will reduce fossil-fuel emissions… as much as they can and then offset whatever they can’t get rid of through other means.”  Critics say commitments that include carbon dioxide removal and other carbon offsets aren’t enough to balance out the emissions that actually get put into the air.   

Photovoltaic solar system 

That’s the same thing as solar (or solar panels).  ‘Nuff said.

Solar + storage

Solar + storage is solar (on your home or business) taken to the next level. On top of having solar power that is connected to the power grid (see next topic below), you also own a battery that can save excess energy generated from your solar panels. 

It’s sort of like your crunchy neighbor’s rain barrel. When it’s raining, you have more water than you need even after all your plants have been watered. You’re then storing extra water in this barrel, which you stockpile for when you really need it.

Solar + storage allows you to use energy either from the grid, or your battery–you get to choose. The stored energy in your battery can be used later for personal use or even for others in your community (e.g., as backup power during electricity outages). Schools across the country with solar + storage are serving as emergency centers during times of natural disasters, helping to keep the lights on while also providing emergency power to their neighbors. EnergySage provides a good overview of how solar and storage works

With its power to protect and mitigate the effects of natural disasters and emergencies, solar + storage should really be called something more heroic like, “resilient power.”


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The electrical grid

The electrical grid or, “the grid” is the network and infrastructure involved in generating energy and getting it to consumers. It’s how we get our electricity. 

To help explain the grid, let’s use the analogy of a coffee shop. Picture this: You’re sitting in a cute boutique coffee shop, you’re munching on a chocolate croissant, sipping your coffee beverage of choice.  The key here is coffee = electrical energy. Here’s a very basic look at how the grid works:

  1. Electricity gets made at a generator, a power plant. It’s made by burning fossil fuels, collecting wind, solar or water energy, or from nuclear reactions. (that’s the coffee maker. Mmm, espresso). 
  2. Next, the power travels to substations, which transform the voltage from low to high or high to low, depending on power needs. This is the cream counter. Coffee too strong? Add in some creamer. Want to ask for another shot? Now’s your chance.
  3. Lastly, electric power gets distributed from the stations out to customers via power lines. This is when an intern eagerly rushes away with 12 coffees in hand, to deliver to his co-workers.

What’s remarkable about powering your home or business with renewable energy (like solar power) is that you can connect this solar to the electrical grid, and when the sun isn’t shining,  you can also pull electricity from the grid. And by contributing to it when the sun is shining, you are helping keep the grid “cleaner.” You also have the option of storing the energy you generate (see solar + storage) and operating “off-grid.”  

Learn more about electricity and how the grid works from Generation180’s Energy Basics Bootcamp

Clean energy and renewables

Lastly, while terms like “clean energy” and “renewables” have made their way into the mainstream, and are therefore more broadly understood, we define them here just so we’re all on the same page. 

Clean energy, or renewables, are energy sources that come from natural sources or processes that are regularly replenished, such as sunlight, wind, and water.  Clean energy differs from “dirty energy,” such as gas, oil, coal, which are finite and when extracted and burned are harmful to the planet and people’s health. 

For more on this, the Natural Resources Defense Council provides a detailed look at solar, wind, hydropower, and other types of clean energy

On this front, we’d say that the cleantech PR guys got it right.