The use of alternative energy has been adopted not only to improve our energy efficiency but also to counter the wide range of environmental problems caused by burning fossil fuels. Our primary sources of energy which derived from coal, oil and natural gas are not renewable, are easily depleted and can substantially harm our environment due to carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing or eliminating these carbon emissions can be resolved by using alternative or renewable resources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and biomass. Renewable resources provide a cheap and efficient energy system, however some experts are skeptical and have argued in the use of alternative energy based on their claims that alternative energy is unreliable, costly and inefficient in fighting against environmental issues. I would like to argue that the use of alternative energy is important because it not only deliver a resilient and cost-effective energy system but also provides essential benefits for our health and economy while promoting conservation of our environment.
Environmental Impact of Wind Energy
One of the cleanest and viable ways to generate electricity is
Wind power due to its abundance, affordability and steady supply.
However, ecologists argued that it has adverse effects on wildlife and habitat. They reported that collision with wind turbines have killed rare birds and bats and disrupted their habitat. These reports may be true, however experts reasoned out that through research on wildlife behavior and advanced technology on wind turbines, these impacts have been reduced by turning off the wind turbines when winds are low. “Wildlife biologists have found out that bat is most active when wind speeds are low” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013). Other critics insisted that wind power is inefficient in reducing carbon emissions because it requires back-up gas power stations which can produce carbon dioxide. These claims are subjective and should be disregarded because researchers from Imperial College in Scotland have developed advanced techniques to reduce carbon emissions by adopting the use of modern and efficient gas turbines. “It calculated that the need to turn fossil fuel power stations on and off in order to back up wind power could reduce the expected emissions benefit of using wind to generate electricity by less than 0.1 percent” (Webster, 2013).
Some economists argued that wind power is too expensive because its installation requires a huge investment where a 2MW size would cost $3-$4 million. Wind power enthusiasts justified that the cost of wind generated electricity has dramatically dropped from 30 cents per kilowatt-hour to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour through advanced technology and market building incentives. “Today wind power plants can generate electricity for less than 5 cents per kilowatt hour, a price which is competitive with new coal or gas-fueled plants” (Windustry, 2012).
Environmental Impact of Solar Energy
In Solar power, the sun provides an excellent source in producing a clean and tenable energy system. However, solar critics disputed that manufacturing process of PV cells involves hazardous materials in which inhaling and exposure to these chemicals can harm the workers’ health and the environment. Experts may agree that building solar panels is just as harmful as producing other products, however, they construed that laws have been implemented to ensure proper waste disposal so that workers and the environment are not harmed. “Manufacturers have a strong financial incentive to ensure that these highly valuable and often rare materials are recycled rather than thrown away” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013).
Solar critics argued that solar technology is costly due to expensive semi-conductor materials used to generate electricity based on a 2,550-watt Solar Edge Astronergy Grid-tie Solar System with 10 solar panels which costs $2.11 per watt and with installation cost of $5,377. However, according to Sun Shot developers, the cost can be reduced to $0.50 cents per kilowatt hour by directly growing pure silicon wafers to build thin film solar cells. “To reach that target the photovoltaic cells will have to convert at least 20 percent of the sunlight that shines on it into electricity and cost only 25 cents per watt by 2017” (Biello, 2011).
Environmental Impact of Geothermal Energy
Geothermal plants vary in terms of technology in which hydrothermal plants are the most widely developed type of geothermal energy. Among the arguments raised by some critics were the problems associated with water usage and contamination in which the extracted hot
water that contains high levels of sulfur, salt and other minerals is pumped back into the geothermal reservoir after using them. Geothermal experts defended this argument stating that despite this impact, there were no formal reports on issues of water contamination and quality. Other critics debated that geothermal plants can cause sinking of land surface and damage of hot springs, mud pools, sinter terraces, geysers, steam vents and steaming ground. Experts expounded that land subsidence is a common risk associated with geothermal plants which can be readily addressed. “Most geothermal facilities address this risk by re-injecting wastewater back into geothermal reservoirs after the water’s heat has been captured” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013). Another argument is that geothermal fluids that are released into the atmosphere contain gases that are harmful to workers and the environment. Experts admitted that some gases are released into the atmosphere, however, through enhanced geothermal system, global emissions would contribute to only 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide which is much lower compared to coal and gas powered plants.” It’s worth noting that at this point, EGS uses only water and none of the toxic chemicals that have raised water-quality and health issues with natural-gas frocking” (Levitan, 2011)
One of the most common misconceptions of some critics is that installation and operation of geothermal plant is too costly based on a generation cost of a 50MW geothermal binary plant which is at $92 per megawatt hour and a 50MW dual flash geothermal plant which is at $88 per megawatt hour. Experts reasoned out that geothermal heating and cooling system installation may be too expensive than traditional systems but its long term savings will compensate for this initial investment. “Typical savings range from 50 to 75 percent of traditional heating and cooling systems” (MacKinnon, 2013). Geothermal energy relies on free fuel sources which does not require outside fuel to operate, making the price stable. “Geothermal is capital intensive, thus all of the fuel is essentially paid for upfront. However, once the power project is built, most of its power production costs are known and few market parameters can modify them” (Geothermal Energy Association).
Environmental Impact of Hydroelectric Power
Hydroelectric power involves harnessing of kinetic energy through moving water to generate electricity which is considered one of the cleanest forms of energy. However, some researchers disagree claiming that dam reservoirs can have major impact on aquatic ecosystems where fish and organisms can be injured by turbine blades. This problem has been addressed by building fish passages and turbines and screen systems designed to reduce fish kill. Other critics insisted that the cold water containing low dissolved oxygen that is released from the reservoir is harmful to plants and animals downstream. But experts persuaded these critics stating that they have developed proper techniques to address this problem. “To mitigate these impacts, aerating turbines can be installed to increase dissolved oxygen and multi-level water intakes can help ensure that water released from the reservoir comes from all levels of the reservoir rather than just the bottom” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013). Some critics also argued that flooding could lead to deterioration of vegetation and soil which releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Experts explained that emission levels may be high at the start but new research shows that these gases start to decline when organisms are fully decomposed. Researchers also reveal that most of the gas emissions in the atmosphere come from the organisms in the water and in the reservoir in the form of climate gases. “’Our findings in Laos indicate that the true figure is much closer to 1 than 28 percent’” (Science News, 2010).
Environmental Impact of Biomass Power
Biomass power plants involve combustion of sustainable feedstock which includes energy crops, agricultural waste, manure, urban waste, and forest products resources. This energy system has been practiced for so many years in many countries however, there have been never-ending debates and arguments over the negative environmental impact associated with it. Most critics insisted that the warmer temperature of withdrawn cooling water that is returned to its source can have a negative effect on plants and animals. Increased cultivation of energy crops for biomass feedstock may lead to soil tillage and nutrient drive off that can harm water quality. Experts refuted that these impacts were addressed by proper harvesting and management of forest waste products to prevent destruction of wildlife habitat and forests. “Important safeguards and best practices for removal are needed to ensure that sufficient crop residues are left behind to improve soil carbon storage, maintain nutrient levels and prevent erosion” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013). Another dispute from critics is that biomass boiler produces smog which can damage lung tissue making people vulnerable to asthma, bronchitis and other chronic respiratory diseases. Experts countered that they have resolved these issues with the aid of the Environmental Protection in UK by setting requirements in adopting best practices and techniques to control and reduce gas emissions. “Readily available technologies, such as fluidized bed or gasification systems, and electrostatic precipitators, can help reduce NOx, CO2, and particulate emissions associated with biomass power” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013).
Some critics insisted that the extraction process of biomass is expensive which resulted to failed biomass projects in many countries. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) stresses that through advanced research and development, there has been a dramatic cost reduction in recent years. “The levelized cost of electricity of biomass-fire powered plants range from 6 to 29 cents per kWh based on capital costs and feedstock costs” (Biomass Energy Center, 2013). The cheapest cost of biomass energy will be around $0.04 per kWh while the highest will be around $11 cents per kWh.
Renewable energy is environmentally preferable because replacing fossil fuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming. It can reduce dependence on imported and expensive fuels thus making it a cheaper alternative. Industrialized nations should promote the use of alternative resources because the tremendous benefits of renewable energy can bring positive changes in our environment, our economy and our way of life.
“Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies”. Union of Concerned Scientists. March 05, 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.
“Geothermal Basics: Power Plant Costs”. Geothermal Energy Association. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.
Webster, R. “Peat, windfarms and wild lands: Does wind power reduce emissions in Scotland”? The Carbon Brief. July 01, 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.