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What’s the Environmental Footprint of Renewable Energy Installation?

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Jane Marsh's picture
Editor Environment.co

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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  • Jul 22, 2021 8:47 pm GMT
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The eco-conscious movement has paved the way for new residential and commercial sustainability standards. Consumers are more likely to purchase a low-emission product than its environmentally degrading counterpart. The increased demand for green goods promotes companies’ adoption of renewable energy sources.

Unfortunately, businesses transition toward clean energy sourcing without evaluating the environmental effects. All technological devices have an ecological impact, causing an expansion of individual carbon and water footprints. Assessing the adverse effects of renewable energy system installations can generate sustainable solutions.

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Solar

A significant portion of solar panel harm derives from installations. Few areas are suitable for optimal placement based on land availability and sun exposure, so professionals clear-cut natural spaces to make room.

Clear-cutting generates habitat degradation, leaving species without adequate protection or food sources. A decrease in biodiversity harms the local ecosystem’s functionality and allows for the expansion of invasive species.

The destruction of vegetation in solar farm installation is counterproductive to the system’s goal. Trees are the environment’s natural carbon filters. One mature tree eliminates 48 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually, so decreasing the number of trees increases the amount of discharge.

The composition of panels also escalates ecological degradation during farm development since they contain acetone, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride and nitric acid. If a professional breaks a panel during the installation process, it releases toxic waste into the environment. Local pollution can increase atmospheric and water degradation and raise the ecological footprint of a system.

Some companies overinstall panels without adequate education and prior efficiency calculations. When they place many systems in one region, they may significantly impact the local ecosystem. Examining the optimal panel size can increase the efficiency and reliability of a solar farm’s energy production.

Wind

Onshore wind turbine installations also generate adverse ecological effects. The process includes material mining and production pollution, which comprise 80% of turbine emissions. Installation additionally drives transportation-related contamination.

Few companies manufacture turbines, increasing the transport rate of the devices. In America, the transportation sector produces 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is the single largest contributing factor to pollution production nationally.

The installation process also endangers bat species. Bats view turbines as trees or water sources, causing mass collisions. As more species die, the sustainability of wind power production decreases.

Environmental engineers and scientists search for technological advancements to decrease the adverse effects of turbines. Maintaining clean energy sourcing is essential to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. It additionally transitions society’s energy reliance away from fossil fuels, significantly reducing atmospheric pollution.

Offshore wind production also creates environmental challenges. During installation, professionals drill the base or three stabilizing legs into the seabed. Turbines invade marine species’ habitats, embedding harmful materials into the ocean floor.

Hammering into the seabed destroys wildlife and increases localized debris. With limited visibility, aquatic species have trouble protecting themselves from predators. Degrading habitats also cause marine life to relocate, leaving them without food or shelter. 

Damage to a turbine’s blades during installation drives a significant pollution problem. Unlike other renewable energy materials, they are nonrecyclable. When someone damages one during installation, they go through an energy-intensive and pollution-generating process. Professionals cut up the blades into small pieces and take them to a designated turbine landfill. Workers place the materials into shallow graves where they will remain indefinitely.

Over time, the elements may leach into the soil, polluting nearby lands. Without system advancements, we may run out of landfill space and have limited disposal resources. Fortunately, professionals are seeking sustainable solutions, decreasing atmospheric and surface-level pollution.

How You Can Lower Emissions

When shrinking your carbon footprint, it is essential to evaluate the difference between natural processes and technological aid. We can organically reduce emissions by expanding vegetation and preserving wild spaces. Limiting our electricity use also decreases pollution, even when utilizing renewable sources.

Clean energy may support the modern lifestyle, keeping humanity safe and healthy, but it may also drive ecological degradation. We can combine low-emission energy sources with eco-conscious living, effectively shrinking the national footprint.

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Jeremy Franks's picture
Jeremy Franks on Jul 22, 2021

Hello, there are several new groundbreaking innovations that reduce kWh on commercial buildings that have zero footprint. The technology is being introduced to ESCO’s now as a much better solution than solar. 7x’s better from what I’m seeing. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 22, 2021

Jeremy, no commercial building (with tenants) has a zero footprint - not even close.

Jeremy Franks's picture
Jeremy Franks on Jul 26, 2021

Agree Bob!

Referring to a new technology that reduce kWh consumption on commercial 3phase HVAC 7 x’s that of solar without taking any of the roofs real estate. 
I should have been more clear in regard to footprint as I was meaning solar panels on a facility. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 29, 2021

Gotcha, thanks for clarification.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 23, 2021

What are some the best technologies you're referring to, Jeremy-- what's the most effective at reducing kWh? And are those different than the lowest hanging fruit that's out there? I'm also excited by how shifting loads will be able to have a great impact on footprint and impact

Jeremy Franks's picture
Jeremy Franks on Jul 26, 2021

Creating power is one thing but innovation has taken a huge leap in reducing power consumption on the  HVACR systems of the world, which are typically the largest consumer of power on a building. Falkonair innovated a retrofit solution saving 50-60% HVAC compressor efficiency. They teamed up with ABB and Schneider Electric with unbelievable results.
I was just at a Kilroy building in San Diego last week where each 70 ton chiller on each of the six floors were retrofitted with Falkonair’s energy efficient solution. 33% efficiency of the overall system with 2 of the 4 compressors being controlled by Falkonair’s SMART Compressor Control (SCC)/Schneider Electrical VFD. 

This innovation is 7x’s more powerful than solar. 

 

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Jul 23, 2021

Fortunately, this is mostly wrong.

Most solar panels are installed on rooftops, floating on water, in conjunction with agriculture and in arid areas. It is rare to cut down trees to install panels.

Panels do not contain any acetone, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride and nitric acid. They are entirely solid state and are made of glass, aluminum, and small amounts of silicon, conductive metals and plastic - all very abundant and with low toxicity.

On the other hand, a 1 kW solar panel weighing about 50 kg avoids the emissions of about 40 tonnes of CO2 from an equivalent coal power station over its lifetime.

Similarly, wind turbines have spectacularly low environmental impact. They alienate a few tens of square meters per Megawatt, which is far lower than any other large-scale generation system (except rooftop solar which alienates no land at all).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 23, 2021

"They are entirely solid state and are made of glass, aluminum, and small amounts of silicon, conductive metals and plastic - all very abundant and with low toxicity."

You're half right, Andrew. In fact, some solar panels contain toxic materials and others don't:

"Solar panel waste can include heavy metals such as silver, lead, arsenic and cadmium that – at certain levels – may be classified as hazardous waste.
Solar panels may be considered a waste when:
• A generator decides to discard unused solar panels: and
• Used solar panels are disconnected/removed from service and will not be reused.
It is important to remember that some types and brands of solar panels are hazardous waste while other are not."

Shining Some Light on Solar Panels

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Jul 26, 2021

95% of solar panels are made with silicon solar cells. No heavy metals. A few percent are made with CdTe cells, for which careful disposal is required.

End of life is not an significant issue. About 60m2 of panel per person producing 20 MWh per annum on average is required to service a 100% renewable energy system. A 30 year life means that 2m2 per person of panel is retired each year. The aluminum frame achieves 100% recycling because of its value. The panel is passed through an incinerator with proper exhaust scrubbing to decompose the panel. The thin plastic layer burns. The very small mass of conductive metals (Cu, Ag, Al) are recovered. The small mass of silicon is discarded (Si is #2 in the Earth's crust and is non-toxic). The glass joins the glass-waste stream, adding about 40% to that stream.

This is not hard.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 23, 2021

Thanks for sharing, Andrew. How optimistic are you about the new research and programs being invested in now to help with end-of-life recycling for solar panels? It's one thing to ensure the next generation of solar panels is better prepared for that stage, but are we going to be ready today for proper disposal as existing panels start to reach that stage? 

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Jul 26, 2021

Little R&D is required. Standard glass recycling technology is used from the building and vehicle industries. A car windscreen has laminated glass including plastic, and this is quite similar to a solar panel. Solar adds about 40% to the glass waste stream when we reach 100% renewables.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jul 27, 2021

Solar panels and farming are incompatible and mutually exclusive.

Utility scale (i.e. large) installations are installed on the ground and remove vast areas from the ecosystem.

Wind turbines require a human exclusion radius of several hundred feet to avoid injury from debris (ice, blades falling apart). Typically, about 3 or so times the tower height.

The impact of wind turbines on the wildlife remains problematic. Bats and raptors are clearly at risk, as evidenced by the dead carcasses found in and around the machines. The industry has used presidential executive orders to exempt itself from the penalties associated with killing eagles as well as endangered bird species.

The replacement period for solar panels is significantly less than the advertised 20 year lifetime. More like ten years. The amount of solid waste is accordingly immense and most of it ends up in dumps. The cost to recycle glass panels and allied bulk commodities is so high that the “all-in” cost to deploy the panels would quickly render solar energy as utterly non-competitive. That is why the panels end up in land fills.

When the environmental impact of renewable energy is actually calculated, the resource quickly becomes exceptionally damaging because of the sheer numbers of renewable energy resources required to meet our energy needs. A inconvenient truth routinely covered up by the renewable energy industry.

 

Billy Gogesch's picture
Billy Gogesch on Jul 26, 2021

Nuclear power is required to maintain a decommissioning fund.  Even if that requirement was introduced to hobble the industry, it turned out to be a good idea.  One that should be applied to all power generators.  Decommissioning costs should not be externalized.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Jul 26, 2021

Decommissioning costs should definitely be internalised.

Pollution costs during operation should also be internalised. I wonder if anyone has thought of introducing a price on carbon emissions?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 29, 2021

Nuclear plants don't produce any carbon emissions. Unlike the solar, wind, biomass, natural gas, and coal industries, nuclear plants capture and safely store all of their waste products.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Aug 6, 2021

Um, really? Like Fukushima or Chernobyl?

Anyway, nuclear is a cottage industry compared with solar & wind. Less than 1 GW net new in 2020 compared with 230 GW for solar/wind. Nuclear can't save us from climate change. Solar & wind can.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 8, 2021

Yes, really. Nuclear has come a long way since those plants built half a century ago, Andrew.  There are 49 modern plants in the U.S. running right now at 100% capacity, producing >100 GW of clean electricity while you're burning gas and waiting for the sun to shine!
 

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Aug 11, 2021

According to the World Nuclear Association (which represents the nuclear industry), averaging over the 5-year period 2015-2020, the annual increase in net new nuclear generation capacity is 2.1 GW per year.

The average annual increase in nuclear generation is 23 TWh per year (0.9%).

These numbers are 2 and 1 orders of magnitude smaller respectively than for PV/wind, and the gap is rapidly expanding.

Nuclear is being relegated to the shadows. It cannot contribute significantly to mitigating climate change. Its better to focus on PV/wind, which can do so.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 12, 2021

Nuclear has already contributed more to preventing climate change than renewables ever will, Andrew.
In France, nuclear completely replaced oil for generating electricity in less than 15 years. Compare to Australia's lingering dependence on coal (even with the largest battery installation in the world)!
Renewables will forever be dependent on coal, gas, and oil for backup when the sun doesn't shine, or the wind doesn't blow. Always have been, always will be.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 10, 2021

The Russians and Chinese are building large numbers of nuclear reactors. Not exactly a cottage industry.

Also, buying solar panels from China is strategically unwise as US dollars are funding a despot nation that is not our friend. Further, Chinese solar panels are cheap because of the extensive use of low-cost coal in the manufacturing process. Dirty little secret of the US green energy religion.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Aug 11, 2021

The Russians and Chinese are building large numbers of nuclear reactors. Not exactly a cottage industry.

A couple of reactors a year each - not exactly large numbers.

 

All that matters is growth in generation - nuclear WW is still below its peak from 2006. Pathetic.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 13, 2021

There are over 50 commercial reactors under construction with value of about 130 billion dollars - see World Nuclear Association. Many are of Russian and Chines origin.
You are seriously out of touch with reality.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Aug 16, 2021

Michael in response to my

A couple of reactors a year each - not exactly large numbers.

you said:

There are over 50 commercial reactors under construction with value of about 130 billion dollars - see World Nuclear Association. Many are of Russian and Chines origin.
You are seriously out of touch with reality.

Let's say 36 of those reactors are of Chinese or Russian origin. Average  completion time = 8 years.  

36/8 =4.5 reactors/year. or 2.25 per country

Which part are you having a hard time understanding? Reality or basic arithmetic?

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