Environmental impacts of renewable energy technologies

Today the situation in fuel and industrial complexes round the world is disastrous. Current energy systems depend heavily upon fossil

Environmental impacts of renewable energy technologies



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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.

Air Pollution

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.

Greenhouse Gases

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

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