EME 807
Technologies for Sustainability Systems

8.7. Environmental Impact of Renewable Energy


8.7. Environmental Impact of Renewable Energy

Sustainability assessment of renewable energy technologies should certainly include analysis of environmental impact. By substituting notoriously harmful fossil fuel combustion, the renewable energy options help to mitigate such problems as air and water pollution, excessive water and land use, wildlife and habitat loss, damage to public health, and global warming.

At the same time, we must understand the non-zero impact of those alternatives when assessing their use at a particular locale. The intensity of environmental impact would vary depending on geographic location, climate, and other factors. For example, biomass energy generation may produce stronger environmental and economic impact in the areas where the land resources are limited, and energy crops would compete with food production. Also, technologies that are associated with significant water withdrawal for cooling and other operational needs can potentially strain the region where water shortages are an issue. So, careful decisions need to be made about deployment of particular technologies so that the most abundant local resources can be used most effectively, and overall impacts are minimized.

Reading Assignment:

Click on links below to read about the specific benefits of renewable energy technologies:

Source: Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies, Union of Concerned Scientists, 4/26/2014

Solar  |  Wind  |  Geothermal  |  Biomass  |  Hydropower  |  Tidal power

Evidently, some of the renewable energy technologies, such as wind or solar, do not emit any greenhouse gases during operation. However, manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and decommission phases of the system lifecycle would involve some energy use, part of which may come from fossil fuel combustion. A number of lifecycle studies were performed to estimate the overall impact of the renewables.

Reading Assignment

NREL Release: Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electricity Generation: Update, 2021

Such information can be used as a criterion for the sustainability analysis of those technologies. The activity assigned in this lesson asks for an online investigation of energy options with respect to a number of environmental and other metrics.