A lot of people don’t think of electricity as a threat to the environment, and it’s precisely this attitude that makes global electricity consumption a force to be reckoned with. In fact, its environmental impact is arguably the worst kind – deceptively gradual and inconspicuous, yet relentlessly accumulative.
Texas Electricity Ratings, famous for providing authoritative electric company assessments such as its Green Mountain Energy reviews, explains the effects that global electricity consumption has on the environment over time.
Greenhouse Gases Emissions
Greenhouse gases are one, if not the worst enemy of our environment, and the main culprits behind climate change, with CO2 being the nastiest of them all. Electricity production is responsible for the largest amounts of C02 emissions in the U.S., with roughly 34% of all energy-related CO2 emissions in the country in 2017 having come from the electric power sector. Simple deduction makes electricity production to blame for climate change to a very large extent.
The problem is that the bigger portion of global electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and petroleum, biomass, and municipal and industrial waste. To put things in perspective, in 2017, 64% of all electricity in the U.S. came from such sources.
Why is that important? Because burning fossil fuels causes emissions of greenhouses gases like:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
- Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
- Particulate matter (PM)
- Heavy metals such as mercury
While CO2 tends to get most of the shine in the media as it’s one of the main contributors to the greenhouse effect, and respectively climate change, the rest of those gases are all very harmful to our planet in one way or another, too.
For instance, SO2 leads to acid rain, which endangers forest ecosystems and is a particularly devastating to aquatic plants and animals. NOx, on the other hand, in combination with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), creates ozone pollution, the main element of urban smoke, which damages the lungs. The effects of PM are somewhat similar, and to make matters even worse, it synergizes with ozone to cause a range of respiratory problems.
This aspect is often left overlooked, in fact, water consumption to electricity production is a bit like what electricity production is to climate change – the inconspicuous problem. A lot more water goes into generating electricity than people expect.
Cooling technologies that allow electric generating facilities to drive turbines – a process that requires lots of water in itself, use tremendous amounts of water.
Furthermore, electricity production can also pollute water as there are all kinds of chemicals involved in the entire process. This means that water that has been used for electricity production often cannot be reused for other purposes or directed back to the larger water bodies.
Let’s not forget that electric generating facilities don’t just levitate in mid-air. On the contrary, they are huge beasts that need space to operate, space that has usually been formerly taken up by nature and wildlife.
Furthermore, such facilities have an impact on the environment in themselves, and quite a heavy one at that, as all the resources, necessary for producing electricity, such as fuels, don’t just magically appear on the work-site – they need to be mined, collected, and transported there.
Even hydroelectricity, which is generally seen as one of the most promising paths to a greener future, isn’t without environmental tolls. It requires dams, which are disruptive to aquatic systems and their natural water flow, not to mention they can be a catalyst for earthquakes. The latter goes for geothermally produced electricity as well, which doesn’t even bypass greenhouse gases emissions completely, even though it does involve a lot less of them.
Something else that also tends to get overlooked is, ironically, the bigger picture. It’s crucial that we take a holistic view of electricity generation’s effects on the environment.
What that means is that sometimes, reducing the environmental impact in one sense can mean increasing it in another. For example, in France, the climate change impacts decreased by more than 60% between 1980 and 2011, but that didn’t come without a cost – the freshwater ecotoxicity impacts increased by more than 50% for the same period.
It’s a form of trade-off that varies from country to country, and whether it’s positive or negative for us depends on three factors – the electricity demand, which respectively is largely determined by population growth; the developments of technology of power plants; and the kind of energy carriers that make up the electricity mix.
The goal is to balance them in a way that works best for the particular country, and from there, for our planet as a whole.
As mentioned, electricity production is by far not as benevolent as people expect, which makes electricity waste one of the most audacious and possibly even suicidal activities mankind engages in on a daily basis.
Some stats reveal that the power, used by products on standby, could amount to as much as 10% of global electricity use, which is actually good news, as those 10% can easily be eliminated.