Is Renewable Energy Bad for the Environment?

Inspire Clean Energy

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category: Clean Energy 101

Renewable Energy & Pollution

How do renewable energy sources affect the environment?

When examining how renewable energy sources affect the environment, it's important to look at it from different perspectives. Which type of renewable resource are you examining, and what are the benefits and negative impacts of that type of energy source? Also, do the benefits outweigh the negative impacts compared to the negative impacts of nonrenewables like fossil fuels?

Let's look at the pros and cons of some renewable energy sources while asking ourselves if the environmental impact caused by the particular renewable technology is worth it to combat the adverse effects of burning fossil fuels:

  • Hydropower: Hydropower is an old technology that has been in use for generations. The main consequences of hydropower include aquatic life habitat disruption, expensive start-up costs, potential flooding and the displacement of human populations. These historically tend to be native peoples or marginalized people that depend on agriculture as their primary source of income. Hydropower is extremely popular, and it maintains to be one of the largest sources of renewable energy in the world. Since hydroelectric facilities are dependent on water cycles, in theory, they should last as long as humans desire to maintain and utilize their energy-producing capacity.
  • Solar: Solar on a small scale, like installing solar panels on your roof, has a minimal impact on the environment. However, large-scale solar farms take up lots of land. Intentionally, the ground used tends to be undesirable and unfarmable land, like deserts. Another consequence of solar is that the materials needed to construct solar panels can be pretty toxic. Finally, when solar panels are at the end of their lifespan, their disposal can lead to the release of toxins into the earth and the atmosphere.
  • Biomass: Biomass is essentially using organic plant and animal matter to create energy. The energy can be used to heat homes, cook food, and prepare hot water. It can also be used to produce heat to create steam that then turns turbines that utilize generators to create electricity. The main downfall of biomass is that it causes air pollution, which can negatively impact our environment.
  • Wind: Wind power generated from wind turbines is extremely clean. The environmental impacts include land usage, habitat disruption and the unfortunate deaths of unsuspecting birds.

Any energy source is inevitably going to have some consequences on the environment or people. However, through these types of renewable sources, it can be argued that if you compare them to fossil fuels while doing a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of renewable energy sources outweigh their environmental impact.

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What kind of pollution does renewable energy produce?

Of all the renewable energy sources that exist, the most pollution is created from biomass. The burning of wood, solid waste, and leftover plant life used in food production, can create significant air pollution. Of those biomass processes, the burning of solid waste in municipality-managed garbage-to-energy power plants could be considered the largest producer of air pollution. When it comes to wind and solar, pollution is minimal. However, the construction of wind and solar facilities and the disposal of retired equipment can have harmful effects on the environment, like the environmental impact of the machinery used.

What is the most polluting renewable energy?

There are many different ways to look at which renewable energy source has the most pollution-creating potential. When looking at air pollution, it can be argued that biomass and biofuels can create the most air pollution through their combustion. Fuels like ethanol and biodiesel may produce less overall pollution than gasoline. However, they still do create emissions, but when millions of vehicles use these fuels, they can save a massive amount of pollution altogether.

When it comes to renewable energy sources that are the largest producers of harmful solid waste, we can look at solar and wind energy. For example, often solar panels are constructed using semi-toxic materials. When they are no longer in use, it's complicated and expensive to recycle those materials. Decommissioned solar panels often sit in landfills where the potential to release those toxic chemicals into the environment is likely. For wind, the recycling of wind turbines, or their disposal, can also cause pollution when all is said and done.

Which energy source causes the least pollution?

Some argue about whether or not nuclear energy can be considered renewable. The main reason is that nuclear waste after energy production is highly hazardous to the environment and people when exposed. Nuclear waste emits radiation that can lead to a variety of deadly cancers. Radioactive isotopes will eventually break down and decay to a state that is no longer harmful. However, Plutonium-239 can take tens of thousands of years. Even when considering this, nuclear energy still creates the slightest air and water pollution because it is almost always appropriately contained.

Why does renewable energy create less pollution?

In general, hydroelectric power, wind power, and solar technology produce the least amount of pollution. When compared to burning fossil fuels like coal or oil, it is apparent that renewable energy sources create much less pollution because they do not emit leftover gases during energy production. Even biomass, which creates air pollution when solid waste is burned to generate electricity, is dwarfed by the air pollution that fossil fuel power plants produce.

Do renewable energy sources cause air pollution?

Wind power, solar, and hydroelectric power have little to no emissions that cause air pollution. But as mentioned, biomass does emit air pollution from the burning of organic compounds. But again, when compared to the burning of fossil fuels, the environmental degradation of utilizing biomass is much less than nonrenewable energy sources.

Do renewable energy sources cause water pollution?

For the most part, renewable energy sources do not cause water pollution. However, when it comes to hydroelectricity, the process of building a dam can produce many harmful chemicals that can seep into the river or water reservoir that the dam is built on. If we look at water pollution and water consumption, some renewable resources take large amounts of water to operate. For example, when it comes to biofuels, large quantities of water are needed to irrigate crops, and a nuclear power plant can use up to 17-million gallons of water per day. Overall, this should not be a problem since water is constantly being replenished due to the sun and water cycle. But, in regions that are regularly experiencing drought-like conditions, water is not necessarily an unlimited resource.

How does air pollution affect ecosystems?

The main types of air pollution that impacts ecosystems are carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen. Carbon emissions contribute to climate change and the increasing global surface temperatures. Both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen can leak into the water and seep into plant life through acid rain. Acid rain is essentially a chemical reaction when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are released into the atmosphere. These two compounds are incredibly water-soluble. When they become part of the atmosphere, they are released into ecosystems when cloud vapor turns to rain.

Another way that air pollution can harm ecosystems is through ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone can cause damage to the cell membranes of plants. The damage caused by ground-level ozone specifically inhibits the growth of plants in general5.

Which type of pollution is believed to have the most impact on an ecosystem?

The most impactful type of pollution is believed to be air pollution. Carbon emissions are further contributing to climate change. Climate change has some of the most devastating impacts on human health, food production, and our planet. Additionally, carbon, methane, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides contribute to diminishing overall air quality. Numerous studies support the fact that breathing air with high concentrations of these gases can lead to various diseases.

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How does geothermal energy cause pollution?

Although geothermal energy originates from the earth, it's not without pollution from several sources, including air quality, land, global warming, and water quality. While geothermal energy sources are a step in the right direction in improving the earth, they still involve drain on the planet.

Geothermal energy emits carbon dioxide and methane through open-loop systems causing potent global warming gas. Open-loop systems emit about 0.1 pounds of CO2 every kilowatt-hour. However, these gasses are not released into the environment through a closed-loop system, although there are still building and infrastructure emissions. Enhanced systems require drilling and pumping water into hot rock reservoirs at 0.2 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. 

Next, geothermal plants need land to operate for resource reservoirs, power capacity, and type of energy conversion system, along with multiple other components. The world's largest geothermal facility, the Geysers, has 1,517 megawatts and 78 square kilometers of land, or 13 acres per megawatt. Additionally, removing water from geothermal reservoirs can induce ground subsidence or sinking, although management methods are utilized to prevent this problem. Most geothermal facilities manage this danger by re-injecting wastewater into geothermal reservoirs. 

Hydrothermal plants are located in earthquake-prone locations and may induce more earthquakes. By positioning enhanced geothermal plants away from key fault lines, geothermal plants can reduce earthquake risks. When a geothermal system is near a densely populated area, constant monitoring and communication are required.

Open and closed-loop systems affect air emissions in different manners as closed-loop injects gasses back into the ground, which reduces air emissions. However, open-loop systems release harmful chemicals into the earth, including H2S, CO2, ammonia, methane, and boron, while also emitting foul odors.

Hydrogen sulfide becomes sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere (SO2). This creates acidic particles that can enter the bloodstream and cause heart and lung damage. Acid rain from sulfur dioxide harms crops, forests, soils, lakes, and streams. Geothermal plants' SO2 emissions are 30 times lower per megawatt-hour than coal plants'. Some geothermal facilities emit mercury, which must be filtered out via scrubbers to minimize air pollutants. However, these scrubbers contain dangerous chemicals and heavy metals, creating toxic sludge.

Most geothermal plants re-inject used water to prevent contamination and land subsidence. Some water withdrawn from the reservoir is lost as steam, and outside water is needed to keep the reservoir full, but usually dirty water works for this method. Finally, geothermal plants chill and re-inject water requiring thousands of gallons of water per megawatt-hour, reducing water sources. 

Does wind energy pollute?

Wind power is one of the cleanest and most sustainable ways to generate electricity, producing no hazardous pollution or global warming emissions. Wind is abundant, limitless, and affordable, making it a large-scale fossil fuel alternative. Despite its potential, wind power has environmental consequences that should be minimized.

Turbines alone require many resources and maintenance, causing an impact on farmlands and landscapes along with noise pollution and vibrations. Wind turbines require large quantities of land as they need space to operate their massive blades. Alternatively, major wind farms need 30 to 141 acres per megawatt of power output, permanently disturbing one acre per megawatt. Offshore wind farms require more room and challenge with many activities such as recreation, excavation, extraction, and aquaculture.

Offshore wind farms demand more room due to their larger turbines and blades. Offshore installations may compete with fishing, recreation, sand/gravel extraction, oil/gas extraction, navigation, and aquatic life depending on their location. Land animals are harmed, too, such as birds and bats, through collisions caused by air pressure from the turbines rotating. 

While there are no global warming emissions from operating wind turbines, there are emissions from establishing the turbines on location, maintenance, and short lifespans. Most estimates of wind turbine life-cycle global warming emissions are 0.02 to 0.04 pounds per kilowatt-hour.

What are the environmental impacts of hydropower?

Hydroelectric power comprises dams and water division facilities through rivers and canals. A recent study reveals that hydroelectric power plant emissions can also be considerable during operation. Small run-of-the-river plants release 0.01 to 0.03 kg CO2 per kWh. On the other hand, large hydroelectric facilities developed in semi-arid locations have low life-cycle emissions, about 0.06 pounds per kilowatt-hour. 

Hydroelectric generation in the U.S. will likely comprise increasing capacity at existing dams and new run-of-river projects despite both plant types posing pollution problems.

Flooding land for a hydropower reservoir destroys forests, wildlife habitats, farmland, and landscapes. As a result, hydropower poses a threat to wildlife by reducing their available land and disturbing their eco-systems. 

How can solar energy cause pollution?

Solar power plants and technologies do not emit pollution or greenhouse gasses, making them one of the best renewable resources. However, solar energy does require material, maintenance, and energy to operate. Energy from the sun can reduce or replace other energy sources, but renewable energy from the sun does tax the earth. 

Moreover, photovoltaic (PV) cells and panels contain dangerous substances that must be handled with care to avoid accidental release into the environment. Some PV cell technologies use heavy metals; hence their end-of-life management may differ. Also, solar thermal systems often employ toxic fluids to transmit heat, harming the environment. 

As with any power plant, huge solar facilities can harm the environment. Clearing land for development and installing the power plant may harm native plants and animals. Installing solar energy systems on marginal agricultural land or on farms may give economic and environmental benefits to farmers. Many solar power facilities need large quantities of water to clean, cool, and maintain solar collectors and concentrators.

How does renewable energy compare to fossil fuels in regards to pollution?

The majority of the energy in the United States comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are not only non-renewable, but they also harm the eco-systems and contribute to climate change. Therefore, it is critical that the United States transitions away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources. Electricity generation is the main source of industrial air pollution. 

Energy production from these resources has a significant environmental impact, polluting our air, land, and water. Renewable energy sources can be used to generate electricity with fewer negative effects on the environment. In addition, it is possible to generate electricity from renewable energy sources without emitting CO2, the primary contributor to global warming.

Electricity is responsible for 66 percent of the nation's sulfur dioxide (SO2), 25 percent of nitrogen oxides (NOx), and the ozone (O3) creates smog contributing to over 1.5 million significant respiratory health problems every year. Symptoms include cough, lung irritation, lung disease, and cancer. Carbon dioxide (CO2) spreads infectious diseases while furthering air quality complications. 

Non-renewable sources also allow for radioactive waste and radiation with the potential for disasters like Chernobyl. Additionally, mercury from coal plants damages fish, and other wildlife healthy, which humans, in turn, consume and gain the same problems. Over 40 percent of the nation's mercury circulates in the air for a year or longer, crossing thousands of miles. As you can see, fossil fuels pose major threats to every aspect of the planet, which is why renewable energy options are necessary. 

Renewable energy provides energy security, economic growth, energy price stability, and decreases climate change threats. Renewable energy provides a stable power supply and fuel diversification, improving energy security, reducing fuel imports, and saving natural resources. Lower electricity and gas rates save consumers $22.6 to $37.7 billion and provide 91,220 additional jobs, nearly double the number from fossil fuels. Furthermore, renewable energy contributes to the economic development of farms, ranches, and rural landowners. With $41.5 million in investments, nearly $6 billion in farms, and almost $3 billion in local tax collections, renewable energy fuels the economy. 

Renewable sources also reduce global warming pollution, haze, smog, acid rain, mercury contamination, and water consumption. These sources do not require fuel or transmission; hence they are more stable. Some utilities integrate this into their retail electricity prices, exempting renewable energy buyers from certain fees and saving consumers money. Traditional electrical generating emits harmful pollutants and wreaks havoc on the planet, while renewable energy contributes to the country's success and reduces the human carbon footprint. 

How does renewable energy impact wildlife conservation?

Adherents to renewable energy hope to provide safe resources without damaging wildlife or their habitats. To maintain a healthy earth for all residents, not just humans, conservation requires research to determine how animals and their habitats react to emerging technology. As a result, renewable energy investment is on the rise internationally, with no signs of slowing in the future decades. 

Part of the investment plans includes developing around 50 million acres of new land for energy production, with renewable energy accounting for the majority of the impact all by 2035 in just the United States. Infrastructure fragmenting or even eradicating high-quality wildlife habitats are not only possible but probable without conservation. 

Expected negative consequences for wildlife include behavioral changes and direct mortality. Wind turbines, both on land and offshore, kill millions of migratory birds and bats annually. Next, hydroelectric dams reduce fish migration paths, preventing them from reproducing and resulting in high adolescent mortality rates. 

Concentrated solar plants create powerful beams of sunshine that can incinerate insects and birds. Essentially every form of energy impacts the planet and its inhabitants but at varying levels. The goal should be to build energy plants in developed areas to allow for wildlife conservation, and yet, the amount of land necessary is not conducive to developed space. Cost can be a factor, too, as urban areas are far more expensive than their primitive counterparts. 

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