Renewable Energy: Environmental Impacts

EM – June 2023: This month, EM takes a look behind the curtain of some renewable energy technologies to better understand the details of their environmental impacts from a life-cycle perspective.
by Steven P. Frysinger

Renewable sources of energy have been used by humans since before history, but the modern sense of the term certainly dates at least as far back as the early 1970s. The industrial boom after World War II dramatically increased the demand for and production of consumer goods intended to improve citizens' quality of life. Many of these were and are extremely energy intensive—such as automobiles, refrigerators, and air conditioners—and much of this energy derived from fossil fuels, primarily coal, petroleum, and methane. Though this drew increasing concern in the 1960s due to the production of harmful air pollutants generated when these fuels were burned, it was really the oil embargoes of the early and late 1970s that highlighted our dependence on these finite and non-renewable energy sources.

Initially, efforts to address this fossil fuel dependence focused on conservation in what Amory Lovins called the “Negawatt Revolution”. Using less energy is arguably much more efficient than the most efficient means of producing energy. This manifested itself in the appearance of smaller automobiles with higher fuel economy, increased emphasis on insulation of homes and commercial buildings, and a push to reduce consumption by lowering thermostats in the winter and turning off unnecessary lighting. Some of this was facilitated by government action. For example, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard was first enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1975 in response to the 1973–1974 Middle East oil embargo. Other motivation to conserve energy came through public service messaging and education. This has clearly been effective—my 1990 Geo Metro's 58 mpg dwarfed my 1973 Ford Pinto's 21 mpg, to say nothing of my 1968 Chevrolet's 12 mpg! We've also seen other technologies rise to the conservation challenge, such as incandescent lightbulbs being replaced first by compact fluorescents and then by LEDs, and air-to-air heat exchangers replacing much less efficient combustion-based heating systems. Great progress has been made in conservation in the last few decades.

But while conservation is necessary, it is not sufficient. We have also increased our focus on replacing nonrenewable fossil fuel-based sources of energy with renewables, such as solar, wind, biomass, geo-thermal, and hydropower. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2022 U.S. electric power production from renewable energy surpassed that from coal for the first time. While this is due, in large part, to the pressure placed on coal by natural gas, it's clear that the productivity of renewable energy sources is steadily rising.

In this issue of EM, we present three articles to help us to peek under the hoods of three important examples of renewable energy technology in order to help us understand potential issues with these technologies, as well as ways in which these issues can and are being addressed.

Continue reading the full June 2023 issue of EM.


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