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Viktor Katona

Viktor Katona

Viktor Katona is an Group Physical Trader at MOL Group and Expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, currently based in Budapest. Disclaimer: views set…

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Is Renewable Energy As Clean As We Think?

Solar panels

Fossil fuel energy has understandably become the clay pigeon of environmentalists in the past decades – with oil & gas companies having lied too often about the impact of their activities on climate change or environmental pollution for the public to ignore. Oil spills have destroyed many a habitat both onshore and offshore, with an immeasurable number of animals and humans having suffered. But it is important to acknowledge that oil and gas companies are not the only guilty parties, with all types of energy production leading to environmental harm in one way or another. The ‘clean’ energy narrative that is so frequently pushed by renewable advocates may not be quite as clean as you think.

This is not a rallying cry against renewable energy, the energy community needs renewables, it needs various regions specializing in different forms of energy in order to provide for the seamless coexistence of fossil and non-fossil energy sources. Nevertheless, it seems strange that so little progress has been made in identifying and dealing with the environmental risks of renewables.

Wind energy is considered to be the renewable energy source which is the most commercially attractive under current market conditions – in fact, it is so attractive that since 2012 more GW of wind power were installed in the United States than of any other resource, including fossil fuels. It is common enough to hear that wind farms are a blight on the landscape, but that complaint doesn’t carry any environmental significance. Noise, on the other hand, can have a tangible impact on the environment.

Wind plants reach a sound pressure level of 90-100 decibels, with scientific studies suggesting that exposure to such a level of noise will lead to annoyance, sleep disturbances, headaches, anxiety, depression and cognitive dysfunction. These risks can be, and often are, mitigated by building wind plants a safe distance from any sort of human habitation. Yet it would be very difficult to convince birds that sticking to their traditional habitats and migration routes is no longer desirable. On average, each turbine kills 1-15 birds per year depending on the conditions and technology utilized. Related: Energy Is A Breaking Point In NAFTA Deal

On the face of things it might seem that allegations about the negative impact of wind farms are far-fetched, but the quantity of turbines means that the numbers add up. In Scotland alone, between 40,000 – 50,000 puffins and gannets are killed by wind turbines every year. In a peculiar turn of events, wind farms have ended up being more dangerous to large predatory birds like eagles, as well as nesting seabirds, whilst the likes of geese have gradually grown to get along with them. Debates about blades killing birds and shrinking their habitats usually end up in lengthy whataboutism (inevitably, the millions of birds killed by oil spills are mentioned). If wind power is to remain a public favorite, companies ought to take special care in preserving the fauna and flora of windswept locations – adjusting sites to migration routes, minimizing habitat shrinking and noise pollution, as well as conducting further research to make turbines avian death-free.

When it comes to avian safety, solar energy has a similarly bad reputation (statistics corroborate the assumption that solar plants lead to more avian deaths than wind plants). Solar beams that emerge from direct sunlight at concentrating solar plants are quite dangerous for birds, bats and insects as they ignite them mid-air. Although the result might not always be lethal for animals, killing off a territory’s fauna with “solar streamers” is not the sort of PR that renewables enthusiasts would want to see. Therefore, stringent control should be established to minimize such occurrences (an average Californian solar plant has one streamer every two minutes) – monitoring not only the immediate territory of the solar plant, but also adjacent areas.

Humanity generally prefers to drive animals away than to create solutions that cater for their needs and interests. Future solar plants will most likely be equipped with acoustic or chemosensory deterrents to fend off birds or bats, further depriving them of habitat. Maybe it is for the better, given what acids are used to clean surface of these huge farms. Moreover, the installation of large-scale solar plants leads, in many cases, to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, which in turn adversely affect natural habitats and lead to soil degradation. Experimenting with the density of the photovoltaic panels and their height might bring about a viable solution to those problems, but a long-term solution to these problems has yet to emerge. Related: A Saudi-Iran Oil War Could Break Up OPEC

Hydropower enjoys a significant advantage over solar and wind power in that it has been around for more than 135 years (the first hydropower plant was commissioned in 1882). To put this into perspective, the first multi-megawatt solar and wind plants emerged only in the late 1970s, before that their impact on the energy generation sector was limited to feeding remote locations with electricity. Consequently, hydropower specialists have managed to mitigate, though not fully, its negative impacts – fish kills were reduced by cascades and fish ladders, low levels of dissolved oxygen were cushioned by the introduction of multi-level intakes and aerating turbines. Despite significant progress, 2-3 percent of fish are still crushed by hydroelectric dams’ turbines.

Geothermal energy is cleanest sort of energy, period. By mastering the construction of closed-loop geothermal plants, any sort of atmospheric contamination including mercury emissions was reduced to naught, whilst also solving the issue of excessive water usage – water is simply pumped back into geothermal reservoirs (albeit some of it is lost as it transforms into steam). The only problem is that the geographical availability of geothermal energy is a mere fraction of that of solar or wind power, also impacting negatively its production capacity. Yet a plethora of potential regions that could be self-sufficient from an energy production point of view are waiting for any sort of geothermal development – Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and Russia all have plenty of room to grow in this regard.

Renewables are sure to be part of the solution to humanity’s quest of building a sustainable future. But it Is not enough to simply guard people from the negative impacts of energy production and generation, protecting animals and the environment should be just as important. Just as campaigners aspire to hold oil companies to the most stringent safety norms possible, whether they drill in the Arctic or next to nature reserves (just think of Ecuador’s forgotten quest to stop itself from drilling in Yasuní), they should hold renewable energy to similar standard.


By Viktor Katona for Oilprice.com

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  • Kay Uwe Böhm on August 23 2018 said:
    The new renewable energy harming the environment most because not enough to stop expensive wasting of fossil energy only possible with fully clean atomic energy also for CNG methane cheaper than fracking out of water electrolyse H2 and air CO2 in exotherm reaction CH4 and H2O for car driving and much gas to save with atomic electric heating.

    New RBN-Th pebble bed HTR zero risk all cases and cheap. RBN cubic boron nitride called white diamond isortopes B-11 and N-15 latest 1/100 absoption of C-12 allows using only ThO2 pebble runtime up to 30 years and endstorage hard up to 2800°C unburnable insoluble so open HTR secure
    placed in stainless steel 30m down in desert is not environment harming and no tritium etc. out bound by Li-7 cooling all around in double tungsten steel wall then melting concrete rib steel again double stop 1s over melt, Hg swap & pressure switches and overheat self slow sown & internal heat radiation inro concrete, tungsten reflector, tungsten helium.chimney tubes with holes

    Turbines efficiency near 100% without any wasting condensor but centrifugal force compressor and cooling same preheating of all thermal isolated only electricity out and CO2 inatead H2O for low temperature.
  • Irina Dovuskova on August 23 2018 said:
    As soon as wind and solar become available on demand any time of the day or night, without needing government mandates and supports, then they should be allowed to compete with other forms of power. Until then they should be shunned.
  • Kevin on August 23 2018 said:
    Did you know that fossil fuels when burned in an engine use temperatures of up to 35000 degrees.just to start the if ignition process which itself can reach temperatures of 3000 degrees !
    These temperatures can cause burns, blistering and even death in seconds.
    Though they are generally isolated to prevent these things, they are always present.

    The combustion byproducts of fossil fuels can contain carbon monoxide, a deadly gas that people sometimes breath intentionally to commit suicide.
    This is generally managed by controlling the cumbustion process to keep it at safe levels but care must be taken to make sure they don't build up to dangerous levels.

    Fossil fueled vehicles kill 340 million birds every year, and have for 8 decades or so.

    But we won't mention that either, because they use fossil fuels, so its ok because they have helped make hundreds of billions of profits and that is the magic that wind turbines will never have.

    Exposure to fossil fuels can cause cancer.
    But this is pretty much ignored since the fossil fuel producers would rather you didnt spend time worrying about that.

    I'm sure this will never see the light of day, but it was a fun exercise anyway !

    Have an awesome day helping industry that will most likely be end of life on Earth at some point in the future, thanks !
  • Corvettekid on August 23 2018 said:
    Millions of birds are killed in oil spills EACH year ? Says WHO ??

    I'd do the research to prove that statement wrong, but I'm off to the Himalaya's to see the snow caps before they all melt in 2020.
  • Steve on August 24 2018 said:
    It is virtually impossible to have any type of 'sustainable' future so long as we have a monetary system that requires perpetual growth on a finite planet, which is what our debt/credit-based money system needs to keep its Ponzi-type nature from collapsing. And this, unfortunately, is only one of many complex issues that require serious rethinking as we stumble into an unknowable future...
  • Patrick on August 24 2018 said:
    Is Renewable Energy As Clean As We Think?

    Brought to you by oil. Lol..no bias here
  • Roger W Gladstone on August 24 2018 said:
    Looks like the energy required to physically pump or circulate the geothermal fluid is absent from your accessment.....
  • Steve on August 24 2018 said:
    Forbes had an interesting article a while back about Energy Returned on Investment (EROI) which showed that modern society need at least 7 or above to provide energy at large scale. They took into account the buffering of intermittent sources like wind and solar to provide back up from Natural gas plants that can provide a spinning reserve or battery backup. Intermittent power have capacity factors of only 20 % and 33% for solar and wind, respectively and there lies the problem. EROI of wind is only 4 and PV solar only 2 when considering this.

    On top of that there is definitely a hidden cost to intermittent sources that they don't tell you about (lower efficiency back up natural gas due to running only 70% of the time which includes more fuel burned for idling and less efficient).

    Vaclav Smil says that when you look at Wind Turbines and Solar Panels you are looking at hydrocarbons to build, mine, manufacture, and the inefficiency of them. Also intermittent power densities are much smaller than hydrocarbons meaning they take up more space/land than conventional sources (200 wind turbines taking up 2000 acres of space versus a 20 well natural gas pad that may only take up a few acres. Land impact is much greater with intermittent sources Vaclav says.
  • sheila chambers on August 27 2018 said:
    One thing that is constantly overlooked when discussing "renewables" is how DEPENDENT upon OIL they are!
    OIL is used as a raw material for many components, OIL is needed to mine the raw materials, smelt the ore & OIL is needed to fabricate them into components, OIL is needed to transport those parts, assemble them & transport those "renewables" to where they will be used. OIL is in every step of their production from mine to field or roof top & OIL is needed for their maintenence & repair.

    And finally, we cannot replace a RESOURCE with a TECHNOLOGY that's DEPENDENT upon that same RESOURCE!
    Technology is a TOOL we use to change a RESOURCE into something we can use.
    "Renewables" are a dead end but their good for producing PROFITS.

    That "catcha" is virtually impossible to read & I am NOT a "robot"!

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