Renewable Energy: The Growth of New Technologies and Their Impact on the Environment

By Isobel Whitcomb ’17
Environmental Columnist

In recent years, due to increasing awareness about the threat fossil fuels pose to both our climate and our communities, there has been an increasing urgency to increase reliance on more sustainable forms of energy. For example, in this year’s presidential race, as I outlined in the last issue of The Scripps Voice, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have emphasized the importance of growing a thriving green energy sector as well as the potential for economic growth presented by this scientific frontier. Many options already exist for potential new sources of energy. However, not all “green” energies are created equal. Contrary to popular belief, just because an energy is renewable doesn’t mean it has zero impact on the environment. In addition, some technologies are well-researched, widely available, and relatively low cost while newer sources of energy require a greater investment of time and resources in order to make them more economically feasible. Here are the energy sources at the currently forefront of engineering and their potential to help or harm the environment.

Wind power is currently the most widely used form of sustainable energy. Already, wind turbines generate over 1.5 per cent of the world’s electricity. In Europe, these numbers are much higher — Denmark, for instance, uses wind power to generate over 20 per cent of its energy. Wind power is a well-researched and widely understood technology. These qualities are important, but undervalued, especially since emphasis is so often placed on the newest, most exciting technologies. As scientists realize that the most dangerous effects of climate change could potentially occur much sooner than previously realized, a sustainable, low-emissions technology that we can use now, as opposed to in 20 or 30 years, is an important asset. That said, wind power has its own problems. The turbines are huge, and are often described as a “blight” upon landscapes. Just drive east towards the Coachella valley and you’ll understand this description. The turbines are also more than just an aesthetic problem. The construction of the turbines disrupts ecosystems. The most famous example of this effect is the detrimental impact wind turbines have had on birds, particularly raptors and other bird of prey, who tend to fly into the 300 foot long, quickly-rotating blades.

Another well-researched technology, solar power, is currently enjoying its heyday. However, this technology has many more downsides than most people realize. First, to build enough solar panels to power a community requires vast swaths of land. The land most often picked for these projects is the desert, due to the abundance of sunlight and the misconception that deserts are lifeless wastelands. As a result, the construction of solar panels has contributed to the degradation of some of the most unique ecosystems on earth. The second, least understood problem with solar power are the materials required to build the panels. Currently, the cheapest, most common solar panels require rare earth metals which are difficult to extract from the earth’s crust and are not renewable. In addition to environmental threat, this is a major human rights issue. These rare earth minerals are most commonly produced in Central America and Africa, where miners work in dangerous conditions for low wages. But don’t give up hope on solar power- research is being conducted on ways to cheaply produce solar panels without depending on rare earth minerals.

A brand new, emerging technology, artificial photosynthesis is the more-environmentally friendly grandchild of solar power. Artificial photosynthesis harvests sunlight in order to utilize the same pathways of electron transport as plants. In 2011, researchers at MIT discovered how to use this technology to split water into clean oxygen and hydrogen fuels. This technology is exciting, but because it is brand new it is expensive and still requires extensive research in order to implement widely. In addition, it is important to realize that while many brand new systems of energy production seem to be harmless, this perception is partially due to limited research and understanding.
Perhaps most promising out of the newest forms of sustainable energy production is ocean power. Unlike hydropower, ocean power production facilities don’t require the flooding of river valleys or the construction of huge dams that harm fish and other wildlife. These plants use the motion of waves or the ocean tides in order to spin slow-moving rotors that produce huge amounts of energy. For example, the first tide power plant was opened in Ireland in 2007 and produces enough electricity to power 1000 homes. In addition, it is relatively unobtrusive, and as far as scientists can see, has no discernable impact on ocean wildlife.