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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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. Thats the final decision that the nature imposes. Today mankinds 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.


  1. "Biomass fuel." DISCovering Science. Gale Research, 1996. Reproduced in Student Resource Center College Edition. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. September, 1999;
  2. "Alternative energy sources." U*X*L Science; U*X*L, 1998;
  3. Duffield, Wendell A., John H. Sass, and Michael L. Sorey, 1994, Tapping the Earths Natural Heat: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1125;
  4. Cool Energy: Renewable Solutions to Environmental Problems, by Michael Brower, MIT Press, 1992;
  5. Powerful Solutions: Seven Ways to Switch America to Renewable Electricity, UCS, 1999;



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