There is much debate over the environmental impact of energy sources. Some claim that coal isn’t that bad or that technological advances sufficiently mitigate the effects of oil. Others say that solar and wind energy are the safest, cleanest solutions for our health and our environment.
But the truth is, every energy source has some environmental impact. While many think of renewable energy as not having an effect on the environment, that’s not true. The kind of impact on the environment may be different, but in the end, every choice involves some kind of change to the environment.
If you want to consider all energy sources and understand which ones are better for the environment, you need to learn about each of them. Let’s look at the impact of energy sources on the environment, so that you can make an informed decision.
The environmental impact of fossil fuels
There are three major fossil fuels that people discuss: oil, coal, and natural gas. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages.
Simply put: fossil fuels are easy to use. They transport well, and our country’s infrastructure was designed for fossil fuels. Plus, they are inexpensive.
Now, unfortunately, it’s common knowledge that fossil fuels are not sustainable. We’re burning all of our fossil fuels up much faster than we can create them. Burning these fuels is what causes the majority of the environmental impact, as they produce greenhouse gases that can harm ecosystems.
Oil’s impact is well-known. When we burn oil, we releases toxic chemicals into the air. We also run the risk of oil spills, which have been documented in the past few decades. Spills can do serious damage to ecosystems. In addition, oil has to be refined, which creates toxic waste.
It is very disruptive to extract coal from the environment, and can remove mountaintops and hillsides. The process also produces waste that can damage the environment, and contaminate groundwater. The pollutants released from burning coal may be linked to a variety of environmental problems, including acid rain.
Now, the environmental impact of natural gas is much less than that of coal and oil, which is why there are many proponents of natural gas. But it is not perfect. Natural gas releases greenhouse gases into the air and transporting it can be expensive, because it needs to be liquefied before it can be transported.
The environmental impact of solar energy
There are many fans of solar energy who feel it is one of the safest ways we can generate energy.
And solar energy does provide a lot of advantages. As a renewable energy source, solar energy is widely available and unlimited. The collection of solar energy via panels does not give off any air or water pollution and does not need to be transported. Not even noise pollution is a concern, because solar energy is produced very quietly.
Simply put, anywhere the sun shines, you can harness solar energy.
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But that’s not to say that solar energy is free from drawbacks. People often discuss the cost in initial conversations about solar energy. However, environmental impact is something that isn’t usually covered.
Large solar farms can create “heat islands” where the surface temperature of an area is much warmer than the rest of the environment. This can cause significant damage to an area or a population. In addition, the installation of solar farms can take up thousands of acres, causing habitat loss and ecological damage. Therefore, solar cells can have a large land footprint.
There are ways to reduce this impact, but we should still consider these concerns when discussing solar energy.
The environmental impact of wind energy
Because, like solar energy, wind is available almost anywhere, wind energy is a popular choice for renewable energy.
The usage of wind energy generates no risk for air, water, or thermal pollution. There is no fuel to transport, so it is quite safe to use. Material and energy requirements for manufacturing wind turbines are also quite low, so the production of the turbines has a minimal impact on the environment as well.
But there are drawbacks that affect the environment. Wind turbines need winds greater than 7 mph to function and transfer energy. Larger wind farms are then built on places where those wind speeds are common, like coastlines and mountain ridges. Some people feel that these wind farms “pollute” the beauty of these locations. While not a direct impact on the environment, it is something to consider.
And much like solar farms, wind farms require a rather large area to function - up to thousands of acres. They require a large land footprint and the installation of these farms can then damage the land that surrounds them.
Noise pollution is also a concern with some turbines, where the vibrations caused by the turning blades can even interfere with TV and cell phone reception.
So, which energy source is best?
There is no clear answer to this question. When you try to reduce the environmental impact of energy sources, steer away from fossil fuels as it is generally your best bet to keep the environment intact. In addition, choose renewable energy sources to provide sustainability for the future.
But as we make these decisions, it’s important to understand and recognize that all energy sources have some impact on the environment, which should never be taken lightly.
When you choose an energy source, it may be best to make your decisions based on your particular location to maximize the output of energy and minimize the impact it has on the environment around you.