The phrase “clean energy” is an attractive term for the modern-day hippie or even those of us simply trying to live a sustainable lifestyle. After all, what could be “greener” than clean energy? Recently, solar, wind, geothermal, and other sources of energy have come into the spotlight as clean, renewable energy sources. However, all current forms of energy extraction have some sort of impact on the environment, whether they be renewable or not. While the environmentally-conscious may believe that clean energy is a tried and true solution for a greener planet, various forms of “sustainable” energy may not be as clean as they first appear.
When it comes to supplying renewable energy, or energy of any form for that matter, you cannot get away from using land. Whether you are installing solar panels on the ground or placing a wind farm on top of a mountain ridge, extracting energy requires physical space. In order to install infrastructure for clean energy, habitat is often altered or even destroyed so that construction may occur. This is especially true in the case of hydro-electric energy, which is commonly collected through dams. Dams alter the course of a river and can not only drastically change the natural habitat along a waterway, but can also reduce water availability downstream. Despite the fact that these energy sources are renewable, they can still come with drastic consequences for natural habitats.
A number of our favorite furry or feathered critters may also be negatively affected by clean energy sources. For example, wind turbines can create changes in air pressure, causing bats and birds to have an increased risk of collision with these structures. According to the Smithsonian, wind turbines can kill somewhere between 140,000 to 328,000 birds each year, an alarming number even if you are not an avid birder. Solar farms are another example of how clean energy can have a dark side when it comes to wildlife. Solar farms are often installed in desert environments where sunlight is highly accessible. While many think of the desert as a barren wasteland, desert environments still provide important habitat for a number of wildlife species. Installing infrastructure, such as a solar farm, reduces the availability of this habitat. For example, species such as the Desert Tortoise can often be displaced by solar farms Birds may also collide with solar panels or even be burned by concentrated solar rays.
One of the main reasons many people support clean energy in the first place is because they believe that clean energy is produced without greenhouse gases. However, certain forms of clean energy, such as geothermal energy, can also release greenhouse gases that are trapped in the earth. While renewable energy sources tend to release fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, they still release more emissions than most environmentally-conscious consumers expect. So it seems that even in this sector, clean energy fails to be truly sustainable.
With all of these impacts, you may be wondering if it is in fact possible to solve our energy needs without negatively affecting the environment. Before you throw in the towel and decide to give up on the planet, you may want to consider some silver linings. While clean energy is far from perfect, there are a number of avenues for improvement. Currently, a great deal of clean energy is extracted from newly cleared land. However, certainly clean energy sources can be co-located with existing infrastructure, such as buildings or roads. For example, solar panels on top of homes or even business buildings are growing in popularity. Installing panels on top of these existing structures means that no additional land needs to be cleared. It is also possible to create wind farms that also extract solar energy and vice-versa. By colocating two forms of clean energy, you can use even less habitat. Along with trying to reduce our energy consumption in general, changing how we produce renewable energy could drastically reduce our impact on the environment.
Clean energy still has a long way to go before it can be considered truly sustainable. However, with continued advances in technology and logical planning, we can reduce the impact of clean energy extraction and live much greener lifestyles.