One might think that only harmful energy sources like fossil fuels, oil, coal, and natural gas have a dangerous impact on the environment. However, the so-called sustainable resources such as biomass, geothermal, wind, solar, and hydropower also have staggering impacts on the environment, some more vital than others. What we need to understand is that all forms of the electricity generation mechanism have their impacts, including environment-friendly renewable resources. So, to achieve a low carbon future, we can rely on these resources, again and again, to produce useful energy, but there remain to be a few environmental implications of renewable energy.
One might think that exploiting the free source of solar energy is enough to address the environmental concerns about climate change and some other environmental matters. However, solar powers do not operate at night without a storage facility such as a battery, or the unreliability of cloudy weather greatly reduces the energy production capacity even during the daytime. It’s clear that solar is one of the best resources out there, but we should constantly evolve and seek ways to maximize its full potential. The past records have also shown that having such a resource alone will not eliminate the prevailing environmental concerns.
You might argue saying, ‘But wait, renewable energy produces a comparatively low level of GHG emissions, and manufacturing and transporting them will produce a negligible amount of pollutants and emissions, so what exactly is the problem?’ Well, despite not producing the stereotypical hazardous elements, it does contribute to the production of some photovoltaic (PV) cells that release toxic substances contaminating the water resources. Similarly, some hydropower projects consume huge quantities of water, while installing renewable energy landmarks causes havoc in wildlife habitat and disturbs the land as well threatens aquatic life.
Another example is tropical hydropower. With prominent big and shallow structures, it emits a significant amount of GHG when it swamps and kills an abundant source of vegetation. What makes it dangerous is the fact that a typical GHG is 30 times more powerful than CO2 and traps more heat in the atmosphere.
Keeping all the aside, combating the use of traditional energy sources and fueling renewable energy has been the most favourable option to mitigate greenhouse and global warming effects. Proper use of renewable energy helps you achieve better health, job opportunities, improvement in living standards, income development, social bonds creation, community development, and what not.
So, do we want to comprise the possibility of having all of those quintessential elements and lead an ideal society? I guess not. For that matter, the authority figure of a country should emphasize formulating policies that address the issues of impacts of renewable energy technologies in comparison to fossil fuel technology. To offset these implications, we should introduce opportunities for improving energy efficiency as they have become a larger portion of our electric supply.
Now, let’s get down to breaking specific impacts of each sector of renewable energy sources:
1. Environmental Impact of Windpower
Who does not like the feel of a gentle breeze passing through us as we walk by? Very few. Similarly, harnessing wind energy is also one of the subtle and most sustainable ways to generate electricity. As the wind is an abundant and affordable resource, it is the perfect and large-scale alternative to conventional fossil fuels. Nevertheless, its challenges to habitat and wildlife, land use issues, and noise pollution affecting the people living nearby should be recognized and solved accordingly.
2. Environmental impact of Solar power
For cleaner, greener, and sustainable energy generation, people think of solar power as the most likely option. Some implications bound its reputation as the best renewable energy resource. Examples of existing issues include habitat loss and harmful manufacturing materials that significantly impact the scale and technology used, like concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP) and Photovoltaic (PV) solar cells.
3. Environmental Impact of Geothermal energy
Geothermal plants excel greatly in terms of producing technologies used to resource energy into electricity. Upon drilling the earth’s surface, it digs deep enough to find the core of geothermal resources that can help you gain full access to geothermal energy. Further, the resources get converted to electricity through flash or binary or direct steam systems using cooling technologies like water-cooled or air-cooled. So, the conversion and cooling mechanism of this advanced technology have major environmental consequences on the vulnerable land structure of the environment.
4. Environmental Impact of Hydrokinetic energy
Many of us might be unfamiliar with the term ‘hydrokinetic energy’ and no doubt it sounds quite a handful. Basically, this type of energy encompasses an array of energy technologies that are prevalent in the experimental stages or in the premature stages of the lineup. The energy is generated by the movement of the body of water where the turbines are placed directly in a river, tidal current, or ocean. One particular environmental issue is how it affected the life and habitat of creatures living underwater. Other potential impacts have yet to be discovered.
5. Environmental impact of biomass energy
Using biomass as energy requires us to burn materials (wood or others) that releases Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases. However, it is argued that these are the same plants that absorb carbon dioxide making biomass a carbon-neutral energy source. However, the impact of biomass energy can be seen further where people are actively cutting down forests to get firewood. Similarly, the management of waste is also a major concern. However, with modern techniques, all of these can be mitigated making biomass energy a reliable source of green energy.
How can we address the issues of the environmental impact of renewable energy in a rightful way?
We can do so by covering two scales of assessment. The first scale covers the portion on a national or regional scale that tries to analyze the installation process of a typical technology with proper planning foreseeing the likely damage to the surrounding. For that, Life Cycle Assessment( LCA), looks at the full proof impacts of a certain energy project. In this stage, questions like ‘How and where are the raw materials extracted.?’ ‘Are they disposing of the waste in the rightful place?’ are answered.
However, the second scale mitigates the concerns on a rather local level where general impacts on the community’s local water supplies and other developmental projects. Further, it assesses the effects on wildlife and habitat due to a certain energy project site constructed near a damage-prone area.
In the United States and China, the electricity generation process alone emits a significant amount of pollution in any locale. Typical coal-fired power plants are solely responsible for the astounding release of direct mercury in both countries. Although most renewable resources emit a very less amount of pollutants, some of the energies have their own set of repercussions.
For example, electricity generation from biomass is responsible for producing toxic chemicals in the air like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons(PAHs). Regardless of having a lower rate of nitrogen emission from that of fossil fuels, a certain amount of NOx is formulated in case of high-temperature combustion in air through the oxidation of atmospheric nitrogen succumbed at an insanely high temperature. Even for geothermal plants, because of its dry and flash steam geothermal facilities, it produces some quantities of hydrogen sulfide(H2S) from the source being geothermal reservoirs. Even if the effect is comparatively lower, necessary precautions should be taken to combat it.
In a recent study of the overall impacts of renewable energy in Finland, they concluded that the risks are not significant as of now. Regardless, there are some hot spot areas in the area that have a particular concern regarding the climate impacts of forest energy, regional wood combustion, eutrophication caused by utilization of agricultural energy, and biodiversity impacts connected to several renewable energy sources. That’s why we need to look for reliable and generally accepted methods in order to estimate the biodiversity impacts of renewable energy production.
Before we have factual data regarding the issue, we can focus on the qualitative impact assessment framework and can be a good base to attain information on the renewable energy impacts. Such assessments help determine the area that needs further studies until comparable quantitative datasets are not available.
Getting more into the topic, let’s talk about what set of materials do renewable energy installations have and why does it affect the environment? Well, the newly propounded substances like dysprosium, neodymium, cadmium, indium, selenium have newly come into existence which means that we have yet to find a proper recycling system for recycling such materials. If a large-scale recycling formula is not established in time, it can cause immense difficulty in the future for it to be sustainable.
In today’s generation, environmental protection is what we preach about day in and day out. So, naturally, we consider renewable resources to be truly superior to non-renewable ones, and although the evolving technology produces limited quantities of greenhouse gases, we fail to neglect its other adversities. Environmental impacts such as ozone depletion, acid rain production, the release of carcinogens are often overlooked but are the major cause of depletion.
So, for that matter, different technologies harnessing the same renewable energy source should be compared in order to establish a potential range of impacts in regards to a given source of energy. After careful selection of the most significant energy sources and their role in the renewable energy market, a basic contribution analysis, geometric series expansion, and structural path analysis are done to advocate a significant difference between renewable and non-renewable energy sources.
CONCLUSION: Looking for the bright side
To conclude, we need to understand that renewable energy has a good side as well as a bad side. Since they are increasing drastically and play a large part in our energy supply mechanism. Discussion about the pros and cons of using such technology is highly important to address the prevailing issues in time for a sustainable future.