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Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Sources

Posted by Greg Scandrett on Jan 4, 2017 10:00:00 AM

Over the next 20 years, policymakers, industry and government officials will need to invest US $2.5 trillion for electricity generation. Electricity from renewable energy sources produces between 90-99% less greenhouse gases (GHGs) compared with coal-fired plants and causes 70-90% less pollution.

Focusing on renewable energy sources other than fossil fuels and coals might help in avoiding environmental impacts, specifically from air pollution and GHGs. Nevertheless, all forms of electricity generation have their impacts. To achieve a low-carbon future, we need to understand the effects of different renewable energy resources.

Renewable energy is derived from natural sources that are continuously and sustainably replenished. Renewable energy comes from wind energy, solar energy, biomass energy, biogas energy, geothermal energy, hydro power and offshore wind, wave, and tidal energy. A wind turbine may have a lifespan of 20-25 years, according to Thomas Gibon, meaning the material investments may last for 20-25 years before needing to be replaced.

The materials used in creating renewable energy installations include neodymium, dysprosium, cadmium, tellurium, gallium, indium and selenium. These materials have been used only recently, which means that there are limited or no recycling systems yet. A solution to facilitate the large-scale recycling of these materials needs to be designed to avoid problems in the future. There are not currently enough renewable power plants to be retired that could be studied to address this issue empirically.

Hydropower’s environmental impacts depend on where the installation is located. For instance, a tropical hydropower installation that is big and shallow can result in GHG emissions when it swamps and kills vegetation. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is released in such instances, as well as methane (CH4), a GHG that is about 30 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat within the atmosphere.

Solar panels, designed to absorb the sun’s rays as a source of energy to be used for electricity or heating, must be evaluated as well. Solar energy does not operate at night without a storage device such as a battery, and cloudy weather can lead to unreliability during the day. Solar energy remains useful, but further research must be done in order to have a fuller understanding of how to maximize its benefits.

In sum, renewable energy installations are critical to keeping global warming under 2°C, and their environmental impacts should be studied as rigorously as we evaluate non-renewables to realize their maximum potential.

ADEC Innovations (ADEC) is a leading global provider of sustainability solutions, helping clients create programs that allow you to save on energy costs, reduce consumption and improve your organization’s bottom line. For more information on energy management, subscribe to our monthly newsletter, GreenWatch.