Is Renewable Energy Always Good?

People often talk about “renewable energy” as if by definition it must be good for the environment. Is this really the case?  Unfortunately it isn’t.  In many cases, renewable energy can have impacts that are disasterous to humans and other species.  This webpage explores this problem.

Where is Renewable Energy captured?

Energy can be captured wherever a source — such as sunlight, wind, or flowing water — is found in the environment. Small-scale projects, which generate only small amounts of power for local use, can be set up almost anywhere. Waterwheels and rooftop solar panels are good examples. But large-scale projects, which are designed to generate large amounts of power, depend on areas where energy is densly concentrated in the environment.

However, the places where energy is naturally concentrated are often favored by plants and animals, which make use of the energy and form rich and interesting ecological communities. Because dense concentrations of energy are uncommon, often these species and communities are rare or endangered. Large-scale power projects which are located in these areas usually have a significant impact on the environment.

What are some of the ecological impacts of large-scale power projects?

Power Source
Impacts
Animals affected
Hydroelectric power
(or "hydro" for short)

image: Glen Canyon Institute

Big hydroelectric dams destroy riparian (i.e. river) habitats, which are critical centers of biodiversity. They create new zones to which native plants and animals may be poorly adapted, encouraging the spread of invasive species. They change water quality and nutrient flow, and block the movement of species which travel in the river, such as salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and giant rays in Southeast Asia.

In some places, such as the Elwha River, dams are now being removed in order to restore native ecosystems.

salmon
image: Prince of Wales Secondary School stingray
image: MSNBC
Solar power
solar array

image: Discovery News

Big solar projects are usually proposed for desert areas, where intensive solar radiation has created very specialized habitats. Often the species which have adapted to these areas have limited ranges and are sensitive to disturbance. Examples include the Desert Tortoise of the Mojave Desert, and the Giant Kangaroo Rat of the Carrizo Plain.

The energy captured in these projects is usually meant to be used in distant cities, and additional areas are disturbed for the lines to transmit the electricity. Power lines can be a major cause of death for raptors, like the endangered California Condor.

Desert Tortoise

image from USGS Giant Kangaroo Rat
image from Science Photo
Biofuel power
biofuel logo
image: KaHihi WebQuest

Ecological impacts: A number of biofuel projects involve destroying native habitats such as tropical rainforests, in order to grow “energy crops” like oil palms.  In Indonesia, this has impacted species such as the orangutan, which is one of our closest relatives.

Social impacts: Using land and water to grow plants for fuel means that less is available to grow plants for food.  Using corn for biofuel has made it more expensive, which has caused hunger in Mexico. On Maui, using water to grow sugar for biomass means that farmers are not able to grow as much taro, the traditional Hawaiian staple. (It also means less water is available for native freshwater species traditionally used for food — an ecological and social impact!)

orangutan
image © Suzi Eszterhas

hīhīwai & ‘ōpae kala‘ole
Hawaiian hīhīwai & ‘ōpae
image from The Nature Conservancy
Wind power
wind turbines
image: Science Daily

Just as wind is important to humans for sailing, it is important to other species for flying: birds and bats use wind in order to get a lift, and are often found in windy areas. Large-scale wind farms have had huge impacts, killing thousands of raptors and other species every year.

This can also have unfortunate secondary consequences. In some places where raptors have been killed, the population of rats has increased. The decline of bats also affects the plants they pollinate.

Mexican long-nosed bat
photo by J.S. Altenbach Kestral killed at Altamont
photo by Wired Magazine

Are there alternatives?

The public discussion of energy issues often treats the current demand for power as a given. However, this shouldn’t necessarily be the case. When we think about energy use, there are a couple of ways we can think about reducing the overall demand.

First, we can think about reducing our use of industrial energy by adopting alternatives, like using carpools or buses instead of driving separately — or even better, walking or biking instead of driving. To be effective, these choices need to be made at a social rather than an individual level, to make sure that there are good bus systems and bike paths, for example. We can reduce the use of energy for air-conditioning by designing buildings to better integrate with the environment, and insulating them effectively, including using “green roofs” of living plants.

And secondly — and equally importantly — we can think about producing the electric power that we do need on a smaller scale. Instead of destroying habitats to build huge solar arrays, we could cover our roofs with solar panels, and produce the energy where it will be used. Small turbines can take advantage of the height of tall buildings in cities to harvest the wind to use locally, without impacting quiet rural areas.

Summary

It is impossible to extract energy from an ecosystem with having some effect. Large-scale energy projects mean large-scale impacts, which are often devastating. Just as producing oil can destroy habitats and kill otters and seabirds, large scale “renewable” projects can destroy environments and kill sensitive plants and animals.

Small-scale energy projects usually have much smaller impacts.  Sometimes it is even beneficial to have them draw energy out of the environment, as when rooftop solar panels capture some of the energy that might otherwise make a building uncomfortably hot.

There is no simple solution to the problem of finding good energy sources, but local needs and impacts should always be considered.

updated 15 May 2011

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