When it comes to energy and electricity production, there can be effects it has on humans.
These potential effects can be more direct and measurable, but also more indirect and harder to get a good measure on.
In this guide, we explore and list both types of impact.
Summary – Which Energy & Electricity Production Source Appears To Be Safest For Humans
- Nuclear and renewables (wind, solar, water etc) appear the best and safest forms of energy for humans over fossil fuels and even biomass and biofuels.
- This is when considering short terms measurables like deaths or accidents related deaths, and also longer term measurables like illnesses or deaths from pollution and so on [it’s important to distinguish between short term and long term effects]
- For example, brown coal, black coal and oil (in that order) are the leading deaths (from accidents and air pollution) per TWh energy sources
- In terms of water footprint, and carbon footprint, fossil fuels are also some of the worst energy sources
- Renewables and ‘cleaner forms of energy’ aren’t perfect though – large hydro and geothermal (linked to the creation of seismic activity) are examples of of energy sources linked to some negative effects for humans.
- Overall, some things that can be hard to measure in some instances are the long term impact of energy sources on particular eco issues, and linking energy sources to certain issues
*The impact of different energy sources on economic development, job creation, and general well being is outside the scope of this guide – but generally, increased energy & electricity production (coinciding with the use of fossil fuels) has been one of the main factors for growing economies in developed countries.
Consideration also has to be given to the sheer amount of things, and the critical things we currently use fossil fuels for in society. For example, some estimates say we currently use fossil fuels for around 96% of the things we do today. There is going to be an indirect benefit for human health and well being related to fossil fuels purely based on that information.
Defining What Impact Of Energy & Electricity Production On Humans Is
- The production of energy can be attributed to both mortality (deaths) and morbidity (severe illness) cases as a consequence of each stage of the energy production process: this includes accidents in the mining of the raw material, the processing and production phases, and pollution-related impacts.
- There are two key timeframes to consider when attempting to quantify potential fatalities from energy production.
- The first is the short or generational timespan, which covers deaths related to accidents in the mining, processing or production phase of energy sources as well as the outdoor air pollution impacts from the production, transport and combustion of fuels.
- The second is the long-term or intergenerational impacts (and resultant deaths) from climate change.
Impact Of Energy & Electricity Production On Humans (Health & Safety) – Direct & Indirect Impact
We’ve already written about the impact different energy and electricity sources have on water use (water footprint), and carbon emissions (carbon footprint).
- Carbon Footprint Of Different Energy & Electricity Production Sources
- Water Footprint Of Different Energy & Electricity Production Sources
The reason water footprint is important is that it impacts how much water we have available for other sectors of society like agriculture and in our houses for drinking water.
Coal, gas, wet cooling methods, and nuclear energy tend to use the most water for electricity generation purposes. Renewables use the least.
The reason carbon footprint is important is for climate change and global warming. Fossil fuels tend to be the worst for greenhouse gas emissions, whilst renewables tend to be the best.
- [the impact of energy production can occur over various timescales]
- In the near-term, the key concerns are related to accidents in the production of energy, potential nuclear incidents, and local air pollution.
- Over the longer-term, these health concerns relate the relative energy drivers of climatic change (which can affect health and safety in various forms, including food access, water resources, sea-level rise, extreme weather events and disease distribution).
- [One key measure of which energy production source is the safest is] … death rate per terawatt-hour (TWh) of energy production … coal is the least safe form of traditional energy. As a result of its minimal contribution to air pollution, nuclear is measured to be the safest …
Death rates from air pollution and accidents related to energy production, measured in deaths per terawatt hours (TWh), are:
- Brown Coal – 32.72
- Coal – 24.62
- Oil – 18.43
- Biomass – 4.63
- Gas – 2.82
- Nuclear – 0.07
- [there is a variable and uncertainty in determining the impact on humans of nuclear waste and radioactive waste management]
- Waste produced from the nuclear fission process (and facility) varies in levels of radioactivity, as well as the period of time for which it poses a risk to human health
- [there is also a variable and uncertainty in determining the impact on humans of climate change]
- the impacts of [climate change can include] … extreme weather, sea level rise, reduced freshwater resources, crop yields, heatstroke [etc., and] are likely to be fatal for some.
- It’s particularly challenging to predict how many climate change related deaths we might experience decades from now, and how much we could attribute to a specific energy source. This makes it difficult to compare specific figures related to long-term deaths.
- Something else to consider with energy and electricity production is sustainability of the energy source i.e. if it’s finite, or if it’s renewable
- A finite resource can have negative impacts on a society and it’s growth unless we find more of it, or we move to renewable
- In this aspect, renewables pose less of a long term risk to societies compared to fossil fuels which are finite with current technology
- It’s also worth noting that although plastic pollution can cause big problems environmentally and to wildlife, we still need both hard and soft plastic for some important uses in society. Plastic is made with petroleum – so the more we deplete oil resources, the more issues we may have with plastic production unless we are able to switch to bio based plastics instead
- there are arguments to be made that some energy sources like wind power have aesthetics concerns, heritage and land rights concerns, are noisy and can displace local populations.
- Hydroelectric sites have also sometimes been known to displace or disrupt local populations
- Geothermal energy [involves] removal of ground water, and accelerated cooling of rock formations can cause earth tremors
- So, seismic activity can be a result of geothermal energy production, and this can impact human safety
1. Hannah Ritchie & Max Roser (2019) – “Energy Production & Changing Energy Sources”. Published online in OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-and-changing-energy-sources#introduction