Impact Of Different Energy Sources & Electricity Production Methods On Humans (Health & Safety), Animals & Wildlife, & The Environment

When it comes to energy sources and electricity production methods, there’s an impact on:

– Humans (health and safety)

– Wildlife and animals

– And, the environment

 

These potential effects can be more direct and measurable, but also more indirect and harder to get a good measure on.

In this guide, we explore and list both types of impact for each category.

 

Summary – Impact Of Energy Sources & Electricity Production Methods On Humans, Animals & Wildlife, & The Environment

Humans (Health & Safety)

Nuclear and renewables (wind, solar, water etc) appear the best and safest forms of energy for humans over fossil fuels and even biomass and biofuels.

This is when considering short terms measurables like deaths or accidents related deaths, and also longer term measurables like illnesses or deaths from pollution and so on [it’s important to distinguish between short term and long term effects]

For example, brown coal, black coal and oil (in that order) are the leading deaths (from accidents and air pollution) per TWh of energy produced 

In terms of water footprint, and carbon footprint, fossil fuels are also some of the worst energy sources

Renewables and ‘cleaner forms of energy’ aren’t perfect though – large hydro and geothermal (linked to the creation of seismic activity) are examples of of energy sources linked to some negative effects for humans. 

Overall, some things that can be hard to measure in some instances are the long term impact of energy sources on particular eco issues, and linking energy sources to certain issues

 

*The impact of different energy sources on economic development, job creation, and general well being is outside the scope of this guide – but generally, increased energy & electricity production (coinciding with the use of fossil fuels) has been one of the main factors for growing economies in developed countries.

Consideration also has to be given to the sheer amount of things, and the critical things we currently use fossil fuels for in society. For example, some estimates say we currently use fossil fuels for around 96% of the things we do today.

There is going to be an indirect benefit for human health and well being related to fossil fuels purely based on that information.

 

Animals & Wildlife

When it comes to impact on animals of energy and electricity production – there can be direct, and indirect effects.

What is interesting to note is that renewable energy like wind and hydroelectric power can damage wildlife and ecosystems in different ways.

So, it’s not just fossil fuel based power like coal and natural gas that can have an impact.

But, some sources say that fossil fuel energy production has a much bigger negative impact comparatively.

This is especially strongly supported when you consider not only the combustion of coal (and the associated air pollution etc.), but how coal is mined (and the impact mining has on rivers and wildlife habitats).

 

– Direct

Injury when water is drawn into the power plant

Harm from thermal pollution when warm water is discharged into an aquatic environment from the power plant or power site

Harm from radioactive waste from nuclear, or even plant malfunctions (Chernobyl impacted animal populations for decades after)

Harm from wind power windmill blades (harm to flying creatures like birds)

Harm from power lines that carry electricity from power plants (birds that sit on the lines can be killed)

 

– Indirect

Climate change can impact animal habitats (caused by GHG emissions from coal and fossil fuels)

Acid rain (from SO2 emissions) can get into animal environments (from smog containing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide)

Heavy metal such as mercury from combustion of fossil fuels can get into animal environments

 

The Environment

There’s several ways that energy and electricity may impact the environment, with some of those key ways being:

Water footprints

Carbon footprints

Air pollution (geothermal has some emissions)

Water pollution

Other types of pollution

Mining

Waste

Land clearing and degradation

Displacing of habitats

 

Impact can also happen at different stages – from sourcing and mining, to production of equipment and power generation plants, to operation, and even at the waste by product stage.

Impact can also be direct (such as direct emissions or direct pollution for example), or indirect (such as contribution to a changing climate, or, air pollutant emissions.

Looking at a summary of fossil fuel vs non fossil fuel energy sources:

 

Fossil Fuels

Overall, it might be accurate to say that fossil fuels are worse for the environment as an energy source, compared to non fossil fuel energy sources, when measuring their impact in all of the areas outlined above (especially when looking at mining of fossil fuels, and them emissions from fossil fuel power plants)

It starts from mining of coal, natural gas, and oil – where there’s land degradation, water use, carbon (and methane emissions), and waste such as mining tailings to consider.

It then extends through to operation of coal and gas plants for example – there’s GHG emissions, air pollution emissions (which can be reduced with air pollution technology), water use with once through thermoelectric power plants, waste in the form of coal ash, and other environmental issues to consider.

 

Non Fossil Fuel Energy Sources

Non fossil fuels might be divided into renewables like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal,etc, and then also non renewables like nuclear. 

Renewables tend to rate better across measures like carbon footprint, air pollution and emissions, and waste especially.

Renewables like solar and wind have almost no emissions at the operation stage, and also don’t have a waste by product.

Solar energy and wind energy also doesn’t have to be mined like fossil fuels do.

Having said that, solar and wind for example can have issues with cost, variability, and other technological problems – they currently aren’t a silver bullet.

There’s also the material such at metal, plastic, glass, and so on, that goes into making solar panels, wind towers, and other renewable equipment.

There’s a manufacturing footprint there, but, also a waste footprint when a solar panel for example reaches the end of it’s lifespan.

In addition, other specific examples of potential environmental problems with non fossil fuel energy can come from mining of uranium and nuclear waste from nuclear energy, use of water and construction of dams and plants on water sources, emissions from geothermal, land, water and other inputs that go into some biofuels … just to name a few.

 

Potential Impact Of Electricity Generation On Humans (Health & Safety)

Defining What Impact Of Energy & Electricity Production On Humans Is

The production of energy can be attributed to both mortality (deaths) and morbidity (severe illness) cases as a consequence of each stage of the energy production process: this includes accidents in the mining of the raw material, the processing and production phases, and pollution-related impacts. 

There are two key timeframes to consider when attempting to quantify potential fatalities from energy production.

The first is the short or generational timespan, which covers deaths related to accidents in the mining, processing or production phase of energy sources as well as the outdoor air pollution impacts from the production, transport and combustion of fuels.

The second is the long-term or intergenerational impacts (and resultant deaths) from climate change.

– ourworldindata.org

 

Impact Of Energy & Electricity Production On Humans (Health & Safety) – Direct & Indirect Impact

We’ve already written about the impact different energy and electricity sources have on water use (water footprint), and carbon emissions (carbon footprint).

Carbon Footprint Of Different Energy & Electricity Production Sources

Water Footprint Of Different Energy & Electricity Production Sources

The reason water footprint is important is that it impacts how much water we have available for other sectors of society like agriculture and in our houses for drinking water.

Coal, gas, wet cooling methods, and nuclear energy tend to use the most water for electricity generation purposes. Renewables use the least.

The reason carbon footprint is important is for climate change and global warming.

Fossil fuels tend to be the worst for greenhouse gas emissions, whilst renewables tend to be the best.

 

[the impact of energy production can occur over various timescales]

In the near-term, the key concerns are related to accidents in the production of energy, potential nuclear incidents, and local air pollution.

Over the longer-term, these health concerns relate the relative energy drivers of climatic change (which can affect health and safety in various forms, including food access, water resources, sea-level rise, extreme weather events and disease distribution).

[One key measure of which energy production source is the safest is] … death rate per terawatt-hour (TWh) of energy production … coal is the least safe form of traditional energy. As a result of its minimal contribution to air pollution, nuclear is measured to be the safest …

– ourworldindata.org

 

Death rates from air pollution and accidents related to energy production, measured in deaths per terawatt hours (TWh), are:

Brown Coal – 32.72

Coal – 24.62

Oil – 18.43

Biomass – 4.63

Gas – 2.82

Nuclear – 0.07

– ourworldindata.org

 

[there is a variable and uncertainty in determining the impact on humans of nuclear waste and radioactive waste management]

Waste produced from the nuclear fission process (and facility) varies in levels of radioactivity, as well as the period of time for which it poses a risk to human health

– ourworldindata.org

 

[there is also a variable and uncertainty in determining the impact on humans of climate change]

the impacts of [climate change can include] … extreme weather, sea level rise, reduced freshwater resources, crop yields, heatstroke [etc., and] are likely to be fatal for some.

It’s particularly challenging to predict how many climate change related deaths we might experience decades from now, and how much we could attribute to a specific energy source.

This makes it difficult to compare specific figures related to long-term deaths.

– ourworldindata.org

 

Something else to consider with energy and electricity production is sustainability of the energy source i.e. if it’s finite, or if it’s renewable

A finite resource can have negative impacts on a society and it’s growth unless we find more of it, or we move to renewable 

In this aspect, renewables pose less of a long term risk to societies compared to fossil fuels which are finite with current technology

It’s also worth noting that although plastic pollution can cause big problems environmentally and to wildlife, we still need both hard and soft plastic for some important uses in society.

Plastic is made with petroleum – so the more we deplete oil resources, the more issues we may have with plastic production unless we are able to switch to bio based plastics instead

 

… there are arguments to be made that some energy sources like wind power have aesthetics concerns, heritage and land rights concerns, are noisy and can displace local populations.

Hydroelectric sites have also sometimes been known to displace or disrupt local populations

– wikipedia.org

 

Geothermal energy [involves] removal of ground water, and accelerated cooling of rock formations can cause earth tremors

So, seismic activity can be a result of geothermal energy production, and this can impact human safety

– wikipedia.org

 

Potential Impact Of Electricity Generation On Wildlife & Animals

… once-through cooling systems [a type of cooling system for steam from turbines or generators] can have devastating impacts on aquatic ecosystems.

As water is drawn into the plant, fish, fish eggs and other aquatic life can be injured or killed in the process.

In addition, when the cooling water is put back into the water body from which it came, it is typically warmer than when it was withdrawn, potentially damaging aquatic life through “thermal pollution.”

In fact, the main source of thermal pollution in rivers is cooling water from power plants. … This will become increasingly problematic as average air and water temperatures make record breaking increases every year due to climate change.

More power to run air conditioners and HVAC systems will be required, which means more cooling water will be necessary.

That cooling water will be harder to cool because of higher air temperatures and the water it will be returned to will be warmer, causing even more aquatic damage.

– watercalculator.org

 

Specific animal species that can be impacted by wind and solar energy production equipment are eagles, condors, seabirds, other types of birds, bats, desert animals like desert tortoises, and pollinators

– usgs.gov

 

…renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower also have environmental impacts … [and impact on] wildlife and habitat loss

[onshore wind turbines can impact birds and bats, while offshore wind turbines can impact fish and aquatic/marine species]

[With hydroelectric energy] fish and other organisms can be injured and killed by turbine blades, [as well as aquatic animals being impacted by the way the hydroelectric plant manipulates and changes the water and other variables like algae and nutrients in the water]

– ucsusa.org

 

SO2 causes acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in water.

SO2 also worsens respiratory illnesses and heart diseases, particularly in children and the elderly.

Heavy metals such as mercury are hazardous to human and animal health.

– eia.gov

 

reneweconomy.com.au provides a table of different energy production sources and their likelihood of impacting wildlife, and says wind has much lower risk to wildlife than fossil fuel energy sources:

replacing all fossil fuel generation with wind turbines world-wide would save roughly 70 MILLION birds’ lives annually.

Wind energy is actually the form of generation with the lowest impact on wildlife

 

Air and water pollution are two leading environmental issues associated with geothermal energy technologies

if [releases of different air and water pollutants are] concentrated, [they] can create localized fish and wildlife kills.

… Geothermal resource development is often highly centralized, so reducing their environmental impacts to an acceptable level is achievable.

– fws.gov

 

Fossil fuel-fired electric power plants … [have] significant impacts on water and habitat and species.

In particular, hydro dams and transmission lines have significant effects on water and biodiversity.

… [you also have to consider the impact coal and fossil fuel mining, and not just combustion, has on wildlife and their habitats]

Coal mining practices in the United States have also included strip mining and removing mountain tops.

Mill tailings are left out bare and have been leached into local rivers and resulted in most or all of the rivers in coal producing areas to run red year round with sulfuric acid that kills all life in the rivers.

… [it’s not only fossil fuel energy production that impact wildlife] … gravity foundations for wind power windmills for example have a large land footprint and can displace habitats

– wikipedia.org

 

A large nuclear power plant may reject waste heat to a natural body of water; this can result in undesirable increase of the water temperature with adverse effect on aquatic life.

Mining of uranium ore can disrupt the environment around the mine. 

– wikipedia.org

 

Marine based energy sources like offshore wind turbines or tidal equipment can have concerns with creating an electromagnetic field that may be harmful to some marine organisms

– wikipedia.org

 

Geothermal energy can be responsible for increased temperature [discharge] when returned to streams or lakes, may have a significant impact on local ecosystems.

– wikipedia.org

 

Potential Impact Of Electricity Generation On Environment

Water & Carbon Footprints

Significant consumption of water (which impacts water scarcity and other fresh water related issues), and significant emissions of GHG and carbon emissions (which impacts climate change and global warming) are two environmental impacts of electricity production – especially thermoelectric plants and fossil fuel plants.

We’ve already written guides about the carbon footprint and water footprint of different energy sources:

Carbon Footprint Of Different Energy & Electricity Production Sources

Water Footprint Of Different Energy & Electricity Production Sources

 

Air Pollution

Can happen as a result of fossil fuel mining, but also from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

Pollutants can include (not including GHGs):

Carbon monoxide (CO)

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)

Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

Particulate matter (PM)

Heavy metals such as mercury

 

Nearly all combustion byproducts have negative effects on the environment and human health:

SO2 causes acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in water. SO2 also worsens respiratory illnesses and heart diseases, particularly in children and the elderly.

NOx contribute to ground-level ozone, which irritates and damages the lungs.

PM results in hazy conditions in cites and scenic areas and coupled with ozone, contributes to asthma and chronic bronchitis, especially in children and the elderly. Very small, or fine PM, is also believed to cause emphysema and lung cancer.

Heavy metals such as mercury are hazardous to human and animal health.

– eia.gov

Having said that – power plants do have control measures to minimise air pollution. Read more at https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_environment

 

Ozone, sulfur dioxide, NO2 and other gases are often released, as well as particulate matter [during combustion of fossil fuels]

Sulfur and nitrogen oxides contribute to smog and acid rain

– wikipedia.org

 

Geothermal energy has some emissions [too] … which may include hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide

– wikipedia.org

 

Water Pollution

Happens from operation of power plants via air pollution (which water absorbs), but also when chemicals directly leach into, or are dumped into water sources. Acid rain, and carbon in the air are also responsible for polluting water, or in the case of carbon – leading to acidification.

 

the [electricity] sector has significant impacts on water and habitat and species.

In particular, hydro dams and transmission lines have significant effects on water and biodiversity

Coal mining practices in the United States have also included strip mining and removing mountain tops.

Mill tailings are left out bare and have been leached into local rivers and resulted in most or all of the rivers in coal producing areas to run red year round with sulfuric acid that kills all life in the rivers.

– wikipedia.org

 

Other Types Of Pollution

Fossil fuels, particularly coal, also contain dilute radioactive material, and burning them in very large quantities releases this material into the environment, leading to low levels of local and global radioactive contamination, the levels of which are, ironically, higher than a nuclear power station as their radioactive contaminants are controlled and stored.

Coal also contains traces of toxic heavy elements such as mercury, arsenic and others.

Mercury vaporized in a power plant’s boiler may stay suspended in the atmosphere and circulate around the world. 

– wikipedia.org

 

Solar panels [used to involve fossil fuels for the extraction of silicon from silica] although newer manufacturing processes have eliminated CO2 production

– wikipedia.org

 

Obviously nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste which can impact the external environment in various ways if not disposed of and treated properly.

 

Some regular power plants also produce liquid and solid waste we have to deal with.

Ash and fly ash are examples.

Some goes to landfill, whilst some gets re-used in other materials like concrete.

 

Geothermal energy can have some negative environmental impact:

Open-loop systems expel waste steam and gases into the atmosphere and generally result in greater environmental impacts than closed-loop systems.

In a hot dry rock geothermal plant, water under high pressure is pumped through a specially drilled well into a deep body of hot compact rock, causing its hydraulic fracturing

Air and water pollution are two leading environmental issues associated with geothermal energy technologies.

– fws.gov

 

Land Degradation, Land Clearing and Erosion

Most large power plants require land clearing to build the power plant.

Some power plants may also require access roads, railroads, and pipelines for fuel delivery, electricity transmission lines, and cooling water supplies.

Power plants that burn solid fuels may have areas to store the combustion ash.

– eia.gov

 

From mining of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, and even mining uranium for nuclear power plants

From construction and installation of power plants, and other energy generating equipment

– wikipedia.org

 

Biofuels can have a large negative impact on land clearing and land conversion – particularly if forests have to be cleared

Biomass and biofuels can also use land, pesticides and fertilizers as resources – which can have further environmental impacts via leaching into ground and above water sources, air pollution, and other types of pollution

– wikipedia.org

 

Sea and water based energy equipment (like offshore wind turbines) can have issues to do with displacing reefs, seabeds and aquatic habitats.

– wikipedia.org

 

Solar panels can have a large land footprint, which can be negated somewhat by building solar panels up instead … but this reduces efficiency.

– wikipedia.org

 

Displacing Of Habitats And Destructing Ecosystems

From installation of energy equipment, and operation (e.g. hydroelectric plants can have adverse effects on river and dam environments)

– wikipedia.org

 

Sources

1. Hannah Ritchie & Max Roser (2019) – “Energy Production & Changing Energy Sources”. Published online in OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-and-changing-energy-sources#introduction 

2. https://ourworldindata.org/what-is-the-safest-form-of-energy

3. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-much-water-different-energy-electricity-production-sources-need-use-water-footprint/ 

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-much-carbon-greenhouse-gas-each-energy-electricity-production-source-emits-carbon-footprint/ 

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_electricity_generation

6. https://www.watercalculator.org/water-use/the-water-footprint-of-energy/

7. https://blogs.illinois.edu/view/789/423237?count=1

8. https://education.seattlepi.com/electricity-affect-environment-6590.html

9. https://www2.usgs.gov/ecosystems/energy_wildlife/research.html

10. https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts#.XGDz2uIzbR0

11. https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts-wind-power#bf-toc-1

12. https://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts-hydroelectric-power.html#bf-toc-1 

13. https://reneweconomy.com.au/want-to-save-70-million-birds-a-year-build-more-wind-farms-18274/ 

14. https://www.fws.gov/ecological-services/energy-development/geothermal.html 

15. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_environment

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