Environmental impacts of renewable energy technologies
Implications for Agriculture and Forestry8
To combat global warming and the other problems associated with fossil fuels, the world must switch to renewable energy sources like sunlight, wind, and biomass. All renewable energy technologies are not appropriate to all applications or locations, however. As with conventional energy production, there are environmental issues to be considered. This paper identifies some of the key environmental impacts associated with renewable technologies and suggests appropriate responses to them. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and three other national organizations, America’s Energy Choices, found that even when certain strict environmental standards are used for evaluating renewable energy projects, these energy sources can provide more than half of the US energy supply by the year 2030.
Today the situation in fuel and industrial complexes round the world is disastrous. Current energy systems depend heavily upon fossil and nuclear fuels. What this would mean is that we would run out of mineral resources if we continue consuming non-renewables at the present rate, and this moment is not far off. According to some estimates, within the next 200 years most people, for instance, seize using their cars for lack of petrol (unless some alternatives are used). Moreover, both fossil and nuclear fuels produce a great amount of polluting substances when burnt. We are slowly but steadily destroying our planet, digging it from inside and releasing the wastes into the atmosphere, water and soil. We have to seize vandalizing the Earth and seek some other ways to address the needs of the society some other way. That’s why renewable sources are so important for the society. In fact, today we have a simple choice – either to turn to nature or to destroy ourselves. I have all reasons to reckon that most of people would like the first idea much more, and this is why I’m going to inquire into the topic and look through some ways of providing a sustainable future for next generations.
It is hard to imagine an energy source more benign to the environment than wind power; it produces no air or water pollution, involves no toxic or hazardous substances (other than those commonly found in large machines), and poses no threat to public safety. And yet a serious obstacle facing the wind industry is public opposition reflecting concern over the visibility and noise of wind turbines, and their impacts on wilderness areas.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of wind power is its use of land. Most studies assume that wind turbines will be spaced a certain distance apart and that all of the land in between should be regarded as occupied. This leads to some quite disturbing estimates of the land area required to produce substantial quantities of wind power. According to one widely circulated report from the 1970s, generating 20 percent of US electricity from windy areas in 1975 would have required siting turbines on 18,000 square miles, or an area about 7 percent the size of Texas.
In reality, however, the wind turbines themselves occupy only a small fraction of this land area, and the rest can be used for other purposes or left in its natural state. For this reason, wind power development is ideally suited to farming areas. In Europe, farmers plant right up to the base of turbine towers, while in California cows can be seen peacefully grazing in their shadow. The leasing of land for wind turbines, far from interfering with farm operations, can bring substantial benefits to landowners in the form of increased income and land values. Perhaps the greatest potential for wind power development is consequently in the Great Plains, where wind is plentiful and vast stretches of farmland could support hundreds of thousands of wind turbines.
In other settings, however, wind power development can create serious land-use conflicts. In forested areas it may mean clearing trees and cutting roads, a prospect that is sure to generate controversy, except possibly in areas where heavy logging has already occurred. And near populated areas, wind projects often run into stiff opposition from people who regard them as unsightly and noisy, or who fear their presence may reduce property values.
In California, bird deaths from electrocution or collisions with spinning rotors have emerged as a problem at the Altamont Pass wind “farm,” where more than 30 threatened golden eagles and 75 other raptors such as red-tailed hawks died or were injured during a three-year period. Studies under way to determine the cause of these deaths and find preventive measures may have an important impact on the public image and rate of growth of the wind industry. In appropriate areas, and with imagination, careful planning, and early contacts between the wind industry, environmental groups, and affected communities, siting and environmental problems should not be insurmountable.
Since solar power systems generate no air pollution during operation, the primary environmental, health, and safety issues involve how they are manufactured, installed, and ultimately disposed of. Energy is required to manufacture and install solar components, and any fossil fuels used for this purpose will generate emissions. Thus, an important question is how much fossil energy input is required for solar systems compared to the fossil energy consumed by comparable conventional energy systems. Although this varies depending upon the technology and climate, the energy balance is generally favorable to solar systems in applications where they are cost effective, and it is improving with each successive generation of technology. According to some studies, for example, solar water heaters increase the amount of hot water generated per unit of fossil energy invested by at least a factor of two compared to natural gas water heating and by at least a factor of eight compared to electric water heating.
Materials used in some solar systems can create health and safety hazards for workers and anyone else coming into contact with them. In particular, the manufacturing of photovoltaic cells often requires hazardous materials such as arsenic and cadmium. Even relatively inert silicon, a major material used in solar cells, can be hazardous to workers if it is breathed in as dust. Workers involved in manufacturing photovoltaic modules and components must consequently be protected from exposure to these materials. There is an additional-probably very small-danger that hazardous fumes released from photovoltaic modules attached to burning homes or buildings could injure fire fighters.
None of these potential hazards is much different in quality or magnitude from the innumerable hazards people face routinely in an industrial society. Through effective regulation, the dangers can very likely be kept at a very low level.
The large amount of land required for utility-scale solar power plants-approximately one square kilometer for every 20-60 megawatts (MW) generated-poses an additional problem, especially where wildlife protection is a concern. But this problem is not unique to solar power plants. Generating electricity from coal actually requires as much or more land per unit of energy delivered if the land used in strip mining is taken into account. Solar-thermal plants (like most conventional power plants) also require cooling water, which may be costly or scarce in desert areas.
Large central power plants are not the only option for generating energy from sunlight, however, and are probably among the least promising. Because sunlight is dispersed, small-scale, dispersed applications are a better match to the resource. They can take advantage of unused space on the roofs of homes and buildings and in urban and industrial lots. And, in solar building designs, the structure itself acts as the collector, so there is no need for any additional space at all.
Geothermal energy is heat contained below the earth’s surface. The only type of geothermal energy that has been widely developed is hydrothermal energy, which consists of trapped hot water or steam. However, new technologies are being developed to exploit hot dry rock (accessed by drilling deep into rock), geopressured resources (pressurized brine mixed with methane), and magma.
The various geothermal resource types differ in many respects, but they raise a common set of environmental issues. Air and water pollution are two leading concerns, along with the safe disposal of hazardous waste, siting, and land subsidence. Since these resources would be exploited in a highly centralized fashion, reducing their environmental impacts to an acceptable level should be relatively easy. But it will always be difficult to site plants in scenic or otherwise environmentally sensitive areas.
The method used to convert geothermal steam or hot water to electricity directly affects the amount of waste generated. Closed-loop systems are almost totally benign, since gases or fluids removed from the well are not exposed to the atmosphere and are usually injected back into the ground after giving up their heat. Although this technology is more expensive than conventional open-loop systems, in some cases it may reduce scrubber and solid waste disposal costs enough to provide a significant economic advantage.
Open-loop systems, on the other hand, can generate large amounts of solid wastes as well as noxious fumes. Metals, minerals, and gases leach out into the geothermal steam or hot water as it passes through the rocks. The large amounts of chemicals released when geothermal fields are tapped for commercial production can be hazardous or objectionable to people living and working nearby.
At The Geysers, the largest geothermal development, steam vented at the surface contains hydrogen sulfide (H2S)-accounting for the area’s “rotten egg” smell-as well as ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide. At hydrothermal plants carbon dioxide is expected to make up about 10 percent of the gases trapped in geopressured brines. For each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, however, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted is still only about 5 percent of the amount emitted by a coal – or oil-fired power plant.
Scrubbers reduce air emissions but produce a watery sludge high in sulfur and vanadium, a heavy metal that can be toxic in high concentrations. Additional sludge is generated when hydrothermal steam is condensed, causing the dissolved solids to precipitate out. This sludge is generally high in silica compounds, chlorides, arsenic, mercury, nickel, and other toxic heavy metals. One costly method of waste disposal involves drying it as thoroughly as possible and shipping it to licensed hazardous waste sites. Research under way at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York points to the possibility of treating these wastes with microbes designed to recover commercially valuable metals while rendering the waste non-toxic.
Usually the best disposal method is to inject liquid wastes or redissolved solids back into a porous stratum of a geothermal well. This technique is especially important at geopressured power plants because of the sheer volume of wastes they produce each day. Wastes must be injected well below fresh water aquifers to make certain that there is no communication between the usable water and waste-water strata. Leaks in the well casing at shallow depths must also be prevented.
In addition to providing safe waste disposal, injection may also help prevent land subsidence. At Wairakei, New Zealand, where wastes and condensates were not injected for many years, one area has sunk 7.5 meters since 1958. Land subsidence has not been detected at other hydrothermal plants in long-term operation. Since geopressured brines primarily are found along the Gulf of Mexico coast, where natural land subsidence is already a problem, even slight settling could have major implications for flood control and hurricane damage. So far, however, no settling has been detected at any of the three experimental wells under study.
Most geothermal power plants will require a large amount of water for cooling or other purposes. In places where water is in short supply, this need could raise conflicts with other users for water resources.
The development of hydrothermal energy faces a special problem. Many hydrothermal reservoirs are located in or near wilderness areas of great natural beauty such as Yellowstone National Park and the Cascade Mountains. Proposed developments in such areas have aroused intense opposition. If hydrothermal-electric development is to expand much further in the United States, reasonable compromises will have to be reached between environmental groups and industry.
Biomass power, derived from the burning of plant matter, raises more serious environmental issues than any other renewable resource except hydropower. Combustion of biomass and biomass-derived fuels produces air pollution; beyond this, there are concerns about the impacts of using land to grow energy crops. How serious these impacts are will depend on how carefully the resource is managed. The picture is further complicated because there is no single biomass technology, but rather a wide variety of production and conversion methods, each with different environmental impacts.
Inevitably, the combustion of biomass produces air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates such as soot and ash. The amount of pollution emitted per unit of energy generated varies widely by technology, with wood-burning stoves and fireplaces generally the worst offenders. Modern, enclosed fireplaces and wood stoves pollute much less than traditional, open fireplaces for the simple reason that they are more efficient. Specialized pollution control devices such as electrostatic precipitators (to remove particulates) are available, but without specific regulation to enforce their use it is doubtful they will catch on.
Emissions from conventional biomass-fueled power plants are generally similar to emissions from coal-fired power plants, with the notable difference that biomass facilities produce very little sulfur dioxide or toxic metals (cadmium, mercury, and others). The most serious problem is their particulate emissions, which must be controlled with special devices. More advanced technologies, such as the whole-tree burner (which has three successive combustion stages) and the gasifier/combustion turbine combination, should generate much lower emissions, perhaps comparable to those of power plants fueled by natural gas.
Facilities that burn raw municipal waste present a unique pollution-control problem. This waste often contains toxic metals, chlorinated compounds, and plastics, which generate harmful emissions. Since this problem is much less severe in facilities burning refuse-derived fuel (RDF)-pelletized or shredded paper and other waste with most inorganic material removed-most waste-to-energy plants built in the future are likely to use this fuel. Co-firing RDF in coal-fired power plants may provide an inexpensive way to reduce coal emissions without having to build new power plants.
Using biomass-derived methanol and ethanol as vehicle fuels, instead of conventional gasoline, could substantially reduce some types of pollution from automobiles. Both methanol and ethanol evaporate more slowly than gasoline, thus helping to reduce evaporative emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which react with heat and sunlight to generate ground-level ozone (a component of smog). According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, in cars specifically designed to burn pure methanol or ethanol, VOC emissions from the tailpipe could be reduced 85 to 95 percent, while carbon monoxide emissions could be reduced 30 to 90 percent. However, emissions of nitrogen oxides, a source of acid precipitation, would not change significantly compared to gasoline-powered vehicles.
Some studies have indicated that the use of fuel alcohol increases emissions of formaldehyde and other aldehydes, compounds identified as potential carcinogens. Others counter that these results consider only tailpipe emissions, whereas VOCs, another significant pathway of aldehyde formation, are much lower in alcohol-burning vehicles. On balance, methanol vehicles would therefore decrease ozone levels. Overall, however, alcohol-fueled cars will not solve air pollution problems in dense urban areas, where electric cars or fuel cells represent better solutions.
A major benefit of substituting biomass for fossil fuels is that, if done in a sustainable fashion, it would greatly reduce emissions of greenhouses gases. The amount of carbon dioxide released when biomass is burned is very nearly the same as the amount required to replenish the plants grown to produce the biomass. Thus, in a sustainable fuel cycle, there would be no net emissions of carbon dioxide, although some fossil-fuel inputs may be required for planting, harvesting, transporting, and processing biomass. Yet, if efficient cultivation and conversion processes are used, the resulting emissions should be small (around 20 percent of the emissions created by fossil fuels alone). And if the energy needed to produce and process biomass came from renewable sources in the first place, the net contribution to global warming would be zero.
Similarly, if biomass wastes such as crop residues or municipal solid wastes are used for energy, there should be few or no net greenhouse gas emissions. There would even be a slight greenhouse benefit in some cases, since, when landfill wastes are not burned, the potent greenhouse gas methane may be released by anaerobic decay.
Implications for Agriculture and Forestry
One surprising side effect of growing trees and other plants for energy is that it could benefit soil quality and farm economies. Energy crops could provide a steady supplemental income for farmers in off-seasons or allow them to work unused land without requiring much additional equipment. Moreover, energy crops could be used to stabilize cropland or rangeland prone to erosion and flooding. Trees would be grown for several years before being harvested, and their roots and leaf litter could help stabilize the soil. The planting of coppicing, or self-regenerating, varieties would minimize the need for disruptive tilling and planting. Perennial grasses harvested like hay could play a similar role; soil losses with a crop such as switchgrass, for example, would be negligible compared to annual crops such as corn.
If improperly managed, however, energy farming could have harmful environmental impacts. Although energy crops could be grown with less pesticide and fertilizer than conventional food crops, large-scale energy farming could nevertheless lead to increases in chemical use simply because more land would be under cultivation. It could also affect biodiversity through the destruction of species habitats, especially if forests are more intensively managed. If agricultural or forestry wastes and residues were used for fuel, then soils could be depleted of organic content and nutrients unless care was taken to leave enough wastes behind. These concerns point up the need for regulation and monitoring of energy crop development and waste use.
Energy farms may present a perfect opportunity to promote low-impact sustainable agriculture, or, as it is sometimes called, organic farming. A relatively new federal effort for food crops emphasizes crop rotation, integrated pest management, and sound soil husbandry to increase profits and improve long-term productivity. These methods could be adapted to energy farming. Nitrogen-fixing crops could be used to provide natural fertilizer, while crop diversity and use of pest parasites and predators could reduce pesticide use. Though such practices may not produce as high a yield as more intensive methods, this penalty could be offset by reduced energy and chemical costs.
Increasing the amount of forest wood harvested for energy could have both positive and negative effects. On one hand, it could provide an incentive for the forest-products industry to manage its resources more efficiently, and thus improve forest health. But it could also provide an excuse, under the “green” mantle, to exploit forests in an unsustainable fashion. Unfortunately, commercial forests have not always been soundly managed, and many people view with alarm the prospect of increased wood cutting. Their concerns can be met by tighter government controls on forestry practices and by following the principles of “excellent” forestry. If such principles are applied, it should be possible to extract energy from forests indefinitely.
The development of hydropower has become increasingly problematic in the United States. The construction of large dams has virtually ceased because most suitable undeveloped sites are under federal environmental protection. To some extent, the slack has been taken up by a revival of small-scale development. But small-scale hydro development has not met early expectations. As of 1988, small hydropower plants made up only one-tenth of total hydropower capacity.
Declining fossil-fuel prices and reductions in renewable energy tax credits are only partly responsible for the slowdown in hydropower development. Just as significant have been public opposition to new development and environmental regulations.
Environmental regulations affect existing projects as well as new ones. For example, a series of large facilities on the Columbia River in Washington will probably be forced to reduce their peak output by 1,000 MW to save an endangered species of salmon. Salmon numbers have declined rapidly because the young are forced to make a long and arduous trip downstream through several power plants, risking death from turbine blades at each stage. To ease this trip, hydropower plants may be required to divert water around their turbines at those times of the year when the fish attempt the trip. And in New England and the Northwest, there is a growing popular movement to dismantle small hydropower plants in an attempt to restore native trout and salmon populations.
That environmental concerns would constrain hydropower development in the United States is perhaps ironic, since these plants produce no air pollution or greenhouse gases. Yet, as the salmon example makes clear, they affect the environment. The impact of very large dams is so great that there is almost no chance that any more will be built in the United States, although large projects continue to be pursued in Canada (the largest at James Bay in Quebec) and in many developing countries. The reservoirs created by such projects frequently inundate large areas of forest, farmland, wildlife habitats, scenic areas, and even towns. In addition, the dams can cause radical changes in river ecosystems both upstream and downstream.
Small hydropower plants using reservoirs can cause similar types of damage, though obviously on a smaller scale. Some of the impacts on fish can be mitigated by installing “ladders” or other devices to allow fish to migrate over dams, and by maintaining minimum river-flow rates; screens can also be installed to keep fish away from turbine blades. In one case, flashing underwater lights placed in the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania direct night-migrating American shad around turbines at a hydroelectric station. As environmental regulations have become more stringent, developing cost-effective mitigation measures such as these is essential.
Despite these efforts, however, hydropower is almost certainly approaching the limit of its potential in the United States. Although existing hydro facilities can be upgraded with more efficient turbines, other plants can be refurbished, and some new small plants can be added, the total capacity and annual generation from hydro will probably not increase by more than 10 to 20 percent and may decline over the long term because of increased demand on water resources for agriculture and drinking water, declining rainfall (perhaps caused by global warming), and efforts to protect or restore endangered fish and wildlife.
So, no single solution can meet our society’s future energy needs. The solution instead will come from the family of diverse energy technologies that do not deplete our natural resources or destroy our environment. That’s the final decision that the nature imposes. Today mankind’s survival directly depends upon how quickly we can renew the polluting fuel an energy complex we have now with sound and environmentally friendly technologies.
Certainly, alternative sources of energy have their own drawbacks, just like everything in the world, but, in fact, they seem minor in comparison with the hazards posed by conventional sources. Moreover, if talking about the dangers posed by new energy technologies, there is a trend of localization. Really, these have almost no negative global effect, such as air pollution.
Moreover, even the minor effects posed by geothermal plants or solar cells can be overseen and prevented if the appropriate measures are taken. So, when using alternatives, we operate a universal tool that can be tuned to suit every purpose. They reduce the terrible impact the human being has had on the environment for the years of his existense, thus drawing nature and technology closer than ever before for the last 2 centuries.
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