Science Analysis: Is Renewable Energy As Clean As We Think?

Fossil fuel energy has understandably become the clay pigeon of environmentalists in the past decades – with oil & gas companies having lied too often about the impact of their activities on climate change or environmental pollution for the public to ignore.

Oil spills have destroyed many a habitat both onshore and offshore, with an immeasurable number of animals and humans having suffered. But it is important to acknowledge that oil and gas companies are not the only guilty parties, with all types of energy production leading to environmental harm in one way or another. The ‘clean’ energy narrative that is so frequently pushed by renewable advocates may not be quite as clean as you think.

This is not a rallying cry against renewable energy, the energy community needs renewables, it needs various regions specializing in different forms of energy in order to provide for the seamless coexistence of fossil and non-fossil energy sources. Nevertheless, it seems strange that so little progress has been made in identifying and dealing with the environmental risks of renewables.

Wind energy is considered to be the renewable energy source which is the most commercially attractive under current market conditions – in fact, it is so attractive that since 2012 more GW of wind power were installed in the United States than of any other resource, including fossil fuels. It is common enough to hear that wind farms are a blight on the landscape, but that complaint doesn’t carry any environmental significance. Noise, on the other hand, can have a tangible impact on the environment.

Wind plants reach a sound pressure level of 90-100 decibels, with scientific studies suggesting that exposure to such a level of noise will lead to annoyance, sleep disturbances, headaches, anxiety, depression and cognitive dysfunction. These risks can be, and often are, mitigated by building wind plants a safe distance from any sort of human habitation. Yet it would be very difficult to convince birds that sticking to their traditional habitats and migration routes is no longer desirable. On average, each turbine kills 1-15 birds per year depending on the conditions and technology utilized.
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On the face of things it might seem that allegations about the negative impact of wind farms are far-fetched, but the quantity of turbines means that the numbers add up. In Scotland alone, between 40,000 – 50,000 puffins and gannets are killed by wind turbines every year.

In a peculiar turn of events, wind farms have ended up being more dangerous to large predatory birds like eagles, as well as nesting seabirds, whilst the likes of geese have gradually grown to get along with them. Debates about blades killing birds and shrinking their habitats usually end up in lengthy whataboutism (inevitably, the millions of birds killed by oil spills are mentioned).

If wind power is to remain a public favorite, companies ought to take special care in preserving the fauna and flora of windswept locations – adjusting sites to migration routes, minimizing habitat shrinking and noise pollution, as well as conducting further research to make turbines avian death-free.

When it comes to avian safety, solar energy has a similarly bad reputation (statistics corroborate the assumption that solar plants lead to more avian deaths than wind plants). Solar beams that emerge from direct sunlight at concentrating solar plants are quite dangerous for birds, bats and insects as they ignite them mid-air. Although the result might not always be lethal for animals, killing off a territory’s fauna with “solar streamers” is not the sort of PR that renewables enthusiasts would want to see. Therefore, stringent control should be established to minimize such occurrences (an average Californian solar plant has one streamer every two minutes) – monitoring not only the immediate territory of the solar plant, but also adjacent areas.

Humanity generally prefers to drive animals away than to create solutions that cater for their needs and interests. Future solar plants will most likely be equipped with acoustic or chemosensory deterrents to fend off birds or bats, further depriving them of habitat. Maybe it is for the better, given what acids are used to clean surface of these huge farms.

Moreover, the installation of large-scale solar plants leads, in many cases, to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, which in turn adversely affect natural habitats and lead to soil degradation. Experimenting with the density of the photovoltaic panels and their height might bring about a viable solution to those problems, but a long-term solution to these problems has yet to emerge.

Hydropower enjoys a significant advantage over solar and wind power in that it has been around for more than 135 years (the first hydropower plant was commissioned in 1882). To put this into perspective, the first multi-megawatt solar and wind plants emerged only in the late 1970s, before that their impact on the energy generation sector was limited to feeding remote locations with electricity. Consequently, hydropower specialists have managed to mitigate, though not fully, its negative impacts – fish kills were reduced by cascades and fish ladders, low levels of dissolved oxygen were cushioned by the introduction of multi-level intakes and aerating turbines. Despite significant progress, 2-3 percent of fish are still crushed by hydroelectric dams’ turbines.

Geothermal energy is cleanest sort of energy, period. By mastering the construction of closed-loop geothermal plants, any sort of atmospheric contamination including mercury emissions was reduced to naught, whilst also solving the issue of excessive water usage – water is simply pumped back into geothermal reservoirs (albeit some of it is lost as it transforms into steam).

The only problem is that the geographical availability of geothermal energy is a mere fraction of that of solar or wind power, also impacting negatively its production capacity. Yet a plethora of potential regions that could be self-sufficient from an energy production point of view are waiting for any sort of geothermal development – Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and Russia all have plenty of room to grow in this regard.

Renewables are sure to be part of the solution to humanity’s quest of building a sustainable future. But it Is not enough to simply guard people from the negative impacts of energy production and generation, protecting animals and the environment should be just as important.

Just as campaigners aspire to hold oil companies to the most stringent safety norms possible, whether they drill in the Arctic or next to nature reserves (just think of Ecuador’s forgotten quest to stop itself from drilling in Yasuní), they should hold renewable energy to similar standard.

By Viktor Katona for

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