Yes, electricity generation is, without a doubt, bad for the environment.
In fact, it may be one of – if not the – worst industry on the planet when it comes to its role in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Although electricity is just one point within the energy industry, the others being heat and transport, on the whole, it’s a major backbone of most sectors, so its effect may be far more widespread than first thought.
For example, some data estimates that the energy industry as a whole is responsible for as much as 73% of all global greenhouse emissions when considering its role in the manufacturing, chemical, food, and petrochemical sectors.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
In this article, we look at the various environmental aspects of electricity generation, from pollution and global warming to waste, and the ecological consequences of different types of energy sources.
How Does Electricity Generation Affect the Environment?
Pollution and Emissions
As it stands in the US, the majority, or 60.2%, of all energy generated comes directly from fossil fuels.
However, it’s important to understand that not all sources of electricity equally contribute to pollution and emissions and that fossil fuel sources aren’t a homogenous unit – they can be broken down into different categories, each with its own pros and cons.
Moreover, not all electricity generation comes from fossil fuels.
An analysis of different electricity sources notes that while electricity generation as a whole is responsible for 40% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, of this the main contributor to emissions is fossil fuels.
However, when we look closely at the types of emissions and the amount within different electricity sources, there are some variations.
To illustrate, the analysis found:
- While both coal and oil are considered fossil fuels, coal is a far worse CO2 emitter than oil throughout their total lifecycles.
- Coal (hard coal and lignite) produces 660 to 1300 kg of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity, whereas oil produces 530 to 900 kg of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity.
- However, CO2 isn’t the only GHG – if we look at sulfur dioxide emissions from coal and oil, oil is a worse contributor to this pollutant.
- Coal (hard coal and lignite) produces 0.03 to 7kg of sulfur dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity, whereas oil produces 0.85 to 8 kg of sulfur dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity.
- And even in the case of renewable resources (i.e., those not derived from fossil fuels), there can be considerable variation in pollution levels though rarely at the same levels as fossil fuels.
For instance, photovoltaic electricity (where sunlight gets converted into electricity) produces more CO2 than hydraulic sources (where water energy is converted to electricity).
- Photovoltaic (PV) electricity produces 13 to 190 kg of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity, whereas hydropower produces 2 to 20 kg of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity.
- However, on the whole, even though PV is a heavier emitter when compared to other renewable sources, it would still be considered at the low end when compared to fossil fuels.
- For instance, PV produces only a third of what the lowest CO2 contributor in the fossil fuels category (natural gas) produces, which is 380 to 1000 kg of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity.
With these points in mind, we have to proceed with caution when making assumptions about the degree that electricity generation contributes to pollution and emissions.
Firstly, although renewable resources usually contribute less to pollution than fossil fuels, these sources aren’t entirely innocent either.
And while one source may be low in carbon dioxide, it may be damaging in another area.
Moreover, there are several pollutants associated with electricity generation which, while not necessarily GHGs, can contribute to global health and climate, according to the EIA, such as:
- Sulfur dioxide/oxides – which cause acid rain and respiratory issues.
- Particulate matter – another respiratory emission that plays a role in smog and air quality.
- Heavy metals – which can contaminate water and food supplies.
The National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory explains several of the pollutants we mentioned above can also be indirect GHGs, even if they aren’t typically considered global warming contributors.
However, generally speaking, there are two main types of GHGs associated with electricity generation according to the EIA:
- Carbon dioxide: According to research, CO2 is one of the primary causes of climate change, and electricity generation is responsible for at least 70% of all CO2 in the atmosphere.
- Nitrous oxides: This is another GHG of concern, with at least 5% of nitrous oxide entering the atmosphere coming directly from energy production (though there may be more when we consider how other industries rely on electricity generation).
Both these emissions fall under the definition of GHGs because they trap heat in the atmosphere, advancing global warming.
Additionally, though the EIA doesn’t specify it as a product of electricity generation, methane is likely to be another GHG contributor that comes from the extraction and operation of fossil fuel industries that electricity generation is a part of, as the EPA states that 29% of methane comes from fossil fuel systems.
When these gasses enter the atmosphere, sun radiation that would normally reach the earth becomes trapped.
Instead of being released back into space, the particles of the GHGs interact with light, storing this energy as heat, creating what we know as the greenhouse effect.
And over the course of time, studies argue our continual generation of electricity will and has resulted in a number of environmental issues for our planet, from melting ice caps to rising sea levels, flooding, global temperature changes, and much more.
While the due concern regarding the greenhouse and pollutant effects of electricity generation tends to be the focus in public domains, a perhaps underestimated by-product of it is also waste.
One paper investigating the electricity sector contends that 55% of the waste generated by the industry, most of which could be recycled, goes to landfills.
This waste is not only from the fossil fuel industry but the sector as a whole, as they point out how used equipment, infrastructural, and construction materials from renewable electricity sources can also be contributors.
Moreover, they note that among these material items, many get identified as non-hazardous despite later becoming environmentally unstable, such as oils, batteries, and hydraulic fluids, because of a lack of waste reporting within the sector.
Particularly where renewable electricity sources are concerned, perhaps because their environmental impact is thought to be low, considerations like waste can often fly under the radar.
As one study reports, these industries can be highly wasteful in other forms –for instance, hydro plants which use water to generate electricity, can expend up to 17,000 L of water per megawatt-hour of electricity made.
Similarly, they note that solar plants will contribute as much as 6850 tonnes of hazardous waste within their lifetimes, some of which will not decay, are carcinogenic, and can contaminate the nearby environment.
This is because the solar panels used to collect and generate solar electricity contain cadmium.
And this heavy metal toxin has been found in simulations to have potential leaching capabilities, meaning it can enter the soil, water supplies, and air surrounding landfills and contaminate them.
Land disturbance from electricity generation can result from any type of change to the landscape.
This might include drilling when fossil fuels are involved or, more generally, creating the infrastructure or facilitating operations, such as the transfer of materials, processing, and waste management.
Carrying out these various processes can mean stripping the local land of vegetation, deforesting, loss of soil integrity, and erosion.
Often such effects are associated more with fossil fuels, as drilling can cause irreparable damage to the sediment, soil, and the flow of water from the area.
For instance, the EIA notes that the extraction of natural gas can contaminate water, the air and disturb wildlife, though the extent of this damage may depend on the type of technology used and how the site is managed.
But even renewable energy can cause ecological disturbances.
Research on the infrastructure of wind-energy plants highlights that the mis-selection of construction sites may lead to habitat loss, changes in migration behavior of local species, and fragmentation.
Eventually, the combined effects of electricity generation, regardless of source, where land disturbance is involved, can lead to a number of issues for the ecosystem and, in particular, the services we take for granted that it provides.
As one paper analyzing oil, gas, and wind sources suggests, there will always be tradeoffs when it comes to electricity generation of any kind, but quantifying these effects can be difficult.
What Are the Most Eco-Friendly Forms of Electricity?
As we’ve touched on, it’s difficult to say with certainty that one form of electricity generation is better than another because there are so many variables to consider.
However, based on what we’ve covered and looking at the life cycles of different sources, i.e., from infrastructure to sourcing, it’s likely that the most damaging are those which have effects on the planet as a whole.
For this reason, those which add to the climate change phenomenon, typically fossil fuel-derived energy, will be covered below.
As for those we placed within the eco-friendly category, while they aren’t necessarily perfect solutions, in this regard, they’re less destructive.
Nevertheless, we’d advise keeping in mind the points we’ve mentioned above when considering our list, and we’ll list the pros and cons accordingly so you can make your own decisions.
The main advantages of solar power lie in the fact that it’s a completely renewable source of energy drawing from the sun.
As one university paper highlights, it has little CO2 emissions, is low maintenance, and can be installed to suit multiple applications.
For instance, the versatility of solar energy means it can be installed on existing buildings and help to provide insulation, which minimizes energy consumption overall.
However, as we touched on above, the problem is that the materials used in creating solar panels can contain harmful and sometimes toxic substances and heavy metals.
Moreover, while solar power can be used on an individual basis, providing energy to a town or city would mean installing large-scale solar plants to capture enough energy.
This can damage the surrounding landscape and doesn’t necessarily guarantee energy capture, as solar energy can be weather-dependent.
Geothermal plants generally rely on a combination of water and heat from underground reservoirs being converted into steam, which can power a turbine to create electricity.
This provides several opportunities, according to research, because geothermal plants don’t take up as much space as other power plants as they are underground.
Moreover, despite using water, on the whole, there’s minimal water needed for operations and land disturbance once it’s been set up.
The problem is that in order to discover the optimal location for setup, it means invasive exploration, i.e., drilling to secure a suitable area.
Geothermal plants also utilize long transmission lines to transfer the energy once generated, which can mean that some energy is lost.
Finally, whilst air emissions are minimal, geothermal plants can still contribute to CO2 and sulfur dioxide depending on the type of reservoir used.
As a source of electricity, turbines powered by wind can collect energy into generators with very few emissions.
And as research highlights, because it is a renewable resource that doesn’t require much input, it doesn’t produce waste in terms of hazardous materials or water.
In fact, in many cases, they are installed on land which has already been disturbed so that the impact on the existing habitat is low.
However, this doesn’t mean there are no issues.
For example, bird and bat populations have been known to collide with the turbines, which can alter population numbers as well as potentially change their migration patterns as they seek to avoid the turbines.
Moreover, the visual disturbance of the landscape, noise pollution, and the electromagnetic interference of the turbines may also cause issues for local farmers and the animals they keep.
Nuclear plants are a way of harvesting electricity by extracting energy from the cores of atoms, the smallest particles of a given chemical element.
As the International Atomic Energy Agency explains, this can be done either by dividing (fission) or combining (fusion) atoms together within a controlled reaction, where the energy released heats the reactor’s cooling agent, producing steam that can power turbines to generate electricity.
This method of energy generation, while often feared, is generally safe and can be done without the emission of greenhouse gasses.
Moreover, it can produce far more energy with fewer inputs than the likes of fossil fuels.
For instance, the EU Nuclear Society highlights that the uranium used in nuclear plants can produce nearly 3 million times more energy than the equivalent weight of coal or oil.
However, nuclear plants also carry the burden of toxic waste, various radiation-associated health concerns, and the potential for devastating consequences if they’re mismanaged, according to this University of Stanford paper.
The essence of hydroelectric plants is the efficient conversion of water energy into electricity using a system of pipes and turbines.
As the US Office of Energy explains, this method of energy generation can have many benefits as a low-cost means of renewable energy with little to no emissions.
Notably, it may also be able to help with flood control and irrigation as it can be built around existing infrastructure like bridges and dams.
However, some research points out that whilst it’s a very promising energy source, it can put aquatic habitats at risk.
For instance, researchers have shown that the construction of hydropower plants can irreparably change the way water flows through nearby water supplies, like rivers and forests.
And as a result, it may disrupt the lifecycles and behaviors of local aquatic and terrestrial species, causing a loss in biodiversity and even extinction.
As an energy source, biomass can be processed through several different ways, with the most common being the burning of waste derived from living organisms, such as wood, manure, and unwanted crop byproducts.
The heat from burning this waste is used to produce steam that can turn turbines, generating electricity and substituting the use of fossil fuels for renewable resources.
And because biomass can be derived from waste, scientific reviews suggest it can be a low-cost, efficient, and low-emission route for energy creation.
However, this is dependent on how biomass plants are set up and the methods used.
For instance, if wide areas of land have to be cleared to install infrastructure or if large quantities of water go towards growing crops solely for energy, then they could increase water scarcity and cause ecological harm.
Which Are the Most Harmful Types of Electricity?
According to the data on various types of electricity generation, fossil fuels are the most damaging sources of energy.
These include coal, oil, and natural gas.
This is not only in terms of their greenhouse emissions but also in the amount of pollution they emit and how they can contribute to deaths, either a result of accidents or pollution.
For instance, the data notes that for every terawatt-hour of energy produced by coal or oil, a rough total of 75 people will die from either air pollution or accidental death – that is, 33 deaths from brown coal, 24 from regular coal, and 18 via oil.
However, even where the relative pollution-related premature deaths are low such as in the case of natural gas, greenhouse emissions can still be high, causing damage to the planet as a whole.
To illustrate, natural gas is responsible for only 4.6 deaths per terawatt-hour of energy but generates as much as 490 tonnes of CO2 per giga-watt-hour of energy.
And even without such data points at hand, as we’ve discussed, there are numerous ways in which fossil fuels negatively contribute to environmental health.
From waste to the types of ecological disturbances that accompany fossil fuels throughout their life cycles, they can be extremely harmful to the environment.