We’ve already outlined how energy & electricity production can impact humans, and wildlife/animals.
But, there can also be an impact on the environment.
In this guide, we outline those effects from different energy sources.
Summary – Impact Of Energy & Electricity Production On The Environment
Impact by energy & electricity production on the environment can:
- happen during sourcing, construction and operation of the energy plant/site
- be caused by fossil fuel, or renewable energy sources
- direct, or indirect with how the impact takes place
Some might consider fossil fuels to be more damaging because of not only the operational impact, but the fact that coal and other fossil fuels need to be mined and sourced, which can further add to environmental degradation and the pressure put on environmental resources.
As a few examples, fossil fuels seem to have more negative impact in terms of water footprint, carbon footprint, and air and water pollution.
Newer renewable energy sources are not perfect though, and still have some environmental impact (although probably nowhere near as much).
Impact might centre around the broad issues of water usage, GHG emissions and climate change, local air pollution, water pollution and other types of pollution, and ecosystem destruction and displacement (of land, vegetation, plants, trees etc.).
How Energy & Electricity Production Impacts The Environment
Water & Carbon Footprints
Significant consumption of water (which impacts water scarcity and other fresh water related issues), and significant emissions of GHG and carbon emissions (which impacts climate change and global warming) are two environmental impacts of electricity production.
We’ve already written guides about the carbon footprint and water footprint of different energy sources:
- Carbon Footprint Of Different Energy & Electricity Production Sources
- Water Footprint Of Different Energy & Electricity Production Sources
Can happen as a result of fossil fuel mining. But, it can also occur via fossil fuel combustion which releases of a range of air pollutants.
The substances that occur in combustion gases when these fuels are burned include
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
- Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
- Particulate matter (PM)
- Heavy metals such as mercury
Nearly all combustion byproducts have negative effects on the environment and human health:
- CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which contributes to the greenhouse effect.
- SO2 causes acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in water. SO2 also worsens respiratory illnesses and heart diseases, particularly in children and the elderly.
- NOx contribute to ground-level ozone, which irritates and damages the lungs.
- PM results in hazy conditions in cites and scenic areas and coupled with ozone, contributes to asthma and chronic bronchitis, especially in children and the elderly. Very small, or fine PM, is also believed to cause emphysema and lung cancer.
- Heavy metals such as mercury are hazardous to human and animal health.
Having said that – power plants do have control measures to minimise air pollution. Read more at https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_environment
- Ozone, sulfur dioxide, NO2 and other gases are often released, as well as particulate matter [during combustion of fossil fuels]
- Sulfur and nitrogen oxides contribute to smog and acid rain
- Geothermal energy has some emissions [too] … which may include hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide
Happens from operation of power plants via air pollution (which water absorbs), but also when chemicals directly leach into water sources. Acid rain, and carbon in the air are also responsible for polluting water, or in the case of carbon – leading to acidification.
- the [electricity] sector has significant impacts on water and habitat and species. In particular, hydro dams and transmission lines have significant effects on water and biodiversity
- Coal mining practices in the United States have also included strip mining and removing mountain tops. Mill tailings are left out bare and have been leached into local rivers and resulted in most or all of the rivers in coal producing areas to run red year round with sulfuric acid that kills all life in the rivers.
Other Types Of Pollution
- Fossil fuels, particularly coal, also contain dilute radioactive material, and burning them in very large quantities releases this material into the environment, leading to low levels of local and global radioactive contamination, the levels of which are, ironically, higher than a nuclear power station as their radioactive contaminants are controlled and stored.
- Coal also contains traces of toxic heavy elements such as mercury, arsenic and others. Mercury vaporized in a power plant’s boiler may stay suspended in the atmosphere and circulate around the world.
- Solar panels [used to involve fossil fuels for the extraction of silicon from silica] although newer manufacturing processes have eliminated CO2 production
Obviously nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste which can impact the external environment in various ways if not disposed of and treated properly.
Some regular power plants also produce liquid and solid waste we have to deal with. Ash and fly ash are examples. Some goes to landfill, whilst some gets re-used in other materials like concrete.
Geothermal energy can have some negative environmental impact:
- Open-loop systems expel waste steam and gases into the atmosphere and generally result in greater environmental impacts than closed-loop systems.
- In a hot dry rock geothermal plant, water under high pressure is pumped through a specially drilled well into a deep body of hot compact rock, causing its hydraulic fracturing
- Air and water pollution are two leading environmental issues associated with geothermal energy technologies.
Land Degradation, Land Clearing and Erosion
- Most large power plants require land clearing to build the power plant. Some power plants may also require access roads, railroads, and pipelines for fuel delivery, electricity transmission lines, and cooling water supplies. Power plants that burn solid fuels may have areas to store the combustion ash.
- From mining of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, and even mining uranium for nuclear power plants
- From construction and installation of power plants, and other energy generating equipment
- Biofuels can have a large negative impact on land clearing and land conversion – particularly if forests have to be cleared
- Biomass and biofuels can also use land, pesticides and fertilizers as resources – which can have further environmental impacts via leaching into ground and above water sources, air pollution, and other types of pollution
- Sea and water based energy equipment (like offshore wind turbines) can have issues to do with displacing reefs, seabeds and aquatic habitats.
- Solar panels can have a large land footprint, which can be negated somewhat by building solar panels up instead … but this reduces efficiency.
Displacing Of Habitats And Destructing Ecosystems
- From installation of energy equipment, and operation (e.g. hydroelectric plants can have adverse effects on river and dam environments)