In the past few years, car emissions have been a major environmental scapegoat. So much so that car manufacturers are making a push toward hybrid and electric cars rather than traditional combustion engines. However, the environmental issues of electricity consumption are great regardless of the arena in which it is used.
How Electricity Harms the Environment
Electricity itself is not necessarily harmful to the environment. It gives light, powers appliances, and even heats homes. However, the fuel necessary to produce electricity can be incredibly detrimental to the environment, creating a range of effects that continue for years to come. The continued increase in electricity consumption only feeds the problem.
Fuels Used For Electricity
Currently, the largest fuel sources for electricity are coal and natural gas. The burning of coal and natural gas creates an immense amount of carbon dioxide that the environment cannot keep up with. Normally, trees work to transform the carbon dioxide into oxygen, but there are simply not enough trees to do the work.
As a result, the carbon dioxide sits in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Coal burning also contributes a variety of materials such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, arsenic, cadmium, volatile organic compounds, and mercury that contribute to smog, acid rain, polluted watersheds, and a variety of health problems in humans and animals.
Oil is used mainly as a fuel for heat, but in certain areas, such as New York City, oil is used in small amounts to create electricity. This nonrenewable resource contributes to greenhouse gasses and sludge pollution. The creation of electricity by using oil or coal also requires large amounts of water for cooling. The water is then released into the wild, raising the ambient water temperature and contributing to the overgrowth of algae. Oil also carries with it the risk of contamination during the drilling and collecting process.
No Energy Alternative is 100 Percent Green
Geothermal energy is one of the greenest technologies, but it can contribute to groundwater pollution if the water escapes. The gases emitted to maintain workable temperatures in a geothermal operation also contain methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia but in much smaller amounts than other methods.
Wind and solar methods generate no emissions but may require large amounts of land to create enough energy to make the operation worthwhile. This prevents the land from being used for other development or farming, thus limiting the potential multi-purpose land.
Hydroelectric power has no emissions but can impact the fragile river ecosystem. By slowing the flow of water through a dam, temperatures can rise, oxygen can decrease, and sediment can build up. These small changes can greatly affect animal life, fish populations, and plant species that depend on the river.
Nuclear power has little emissions but does create some solid waste. The waste created, however, is radioactive and poses a threat to humans and animals alike. Nuclear power also carries with it the threat of catastrophic meltdown that could cause significant problems for the environment for decades after the accident occurs.
What You Can Do
Whatever method is selected, understanding the environmental issues of electricity consumption means we can make intelligent decisions on how we generate that electricity.
The best thing to do to decrease the impact is to use electricity less. Make sure you turn off unused lights and appliances. Buy Energy Star rated appliances whenever possible and refrain from unnecessary electricity usage. Get creative by using a solar phone charger or air-dry clothes on a clothes rack. Every little bit helps to keep the Earth clean and healthy.
Union of Concerned Scientists, https://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c01.html
Power Scorecard, https://www.powerscorecard.org/technologies.cfm