Exploring the Environmental Impact of Renewable Energy

10 min

Climate change and the future of our planet are the most significant issues in our lifetime, affecting every person on Earth. Global events such as Cop27 have served to highlight the battle we have on our hands to ensure the survival of our planet. One of the most vital issues in these discussions is the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and find alternative energy sources which are more sustainable and kinder to the environment. 

While most scientists and experts agree that we must move away from fossil fuels and focus on alternative sources, the environmental impact of renewable energy needs to be more widely discussed. 

This article will explore the environmental impact of two of the biggest green energy hopes for the fight against climate change, wind and solar. We will discover why these two energy sources hold much hope for our future, and ultimately, when compared to their environmental impacts, ask, are they worth it? 

The Extraordinary Global Rise of Wind Energy 

We can trace the modern rise of wind energy as a renewable source to the US fuel shortages in the 1970s. To combat the shortages, President Carter signed the Public Utility Regulatory Act, which highlighted the need to increase the production and consumption of renewable energy sources, particularly wind turbines. 

In 1982, news of this increased focus on wind spread across the Atlantic, as several European agricultural manufacturers flew to California to further understand this energy source. By the end of the year, around 30 turbines were shipped back to Europe for installation. According to experts, these events saw the birth of the modern wind energy industry.

Today, wind power is the largest renewable energy producer in the UK and the US. To highlight the scale of the use of wind energy, in 2021, wind turbines operating in all 50 states in the US generated 9% of the net total of the country's power. It helps to avoid 329 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 71 million cars' worth of emissions. In the UK, electricity generated by wind energy increased by 715% between 2009 and 2020. The UK is also home to the largest offshore wind farm in the world, Hornsea 2, just off the Yorkshire coast. With 165 wind turbines, Hornsea 2 helps power 1.4 million homes with clean, renewable energy. We explore the expansion of the Wind Industry and vital jobs such as wind turbine technician and wind project manager in our dedicated blog Increasing Investment in Wind Energy Jobs

Benefits of Wind Energy

So we've seen the global rise of the wind industry, but why is wind such a popular and critical renewable energy source? Next, let's explore some of the benefits of wind energy as a renewable energy source. 

Wind Supply is Inexhaustible

An obvious benefit of wind energy is that it is inexhaustible, and a constant supply is always available. Furthermore, wind energy firms also have precise information about where wind blows most powerfully and frequently. Therefore, wind plants can be planned and constructed in areas that produce more energy. 

Wind Power Plants Occupy Little Land

Even though they are installed on land, wind turbines take up very little space. Due to this, other practices on the land can take place simultaneously, such as growing crops or as pasture for animals.

To highlight this, Climate Action has addressed concerns about the impact of expanding wind farms in the UK on land use. The UK government has previously set a goal of increasing the amount of onshore wind production from 15 gigawatts today to 45 gigawatts by 2035. However, Climate Action reports that more wind turbines would be needed to be built to meet this target, taking up just 0.02% of the UK's total land. Matt Williams, land analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), commented:

"Onshore wind is cheap, popular with the public, and requires very little land. In fact, this is such a tiny fraction of the UK's land, that it will have no real impact on other land uses such as farming. It can also support food production by providing secure revenue streams to help keep struggling farmers afloat." 

Heavily Reduces our Dependency on Fossil Fuels

As we increase our use of renewable energies, we use fewer fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas, which we have become too dependent on. Reducing our use of fossil fuels will reduce carbon emissions which cause climate change, and will reduce pollution to the air and water, making for a much healthier world.

Excellent Conversion Efficiency

When discussing the conversion efficiency of wind turbines, it is often measured against the 'Betz Limit'. In 1919, German Physicist Albert Betz created the Betz limit as the maximum efficiency of wind turbines. In his study, he determined that no more than 59.3% of the kinetic energy in the wind can be used to spin a turbine and create electricity. Turbines can't go any higher than this rate, and modern turbines have efficiency levels of between 40% and 50%, close to the maximum theoretical level.

It is Creating a Global Jobs Boom

As well as being financially and environmentally beneficial, it is helping to create jobs. The expansion of the wind industry has also provided a boom in the jobs markets. The Global Wind Energy Council has predicted that the industry's growth could create 3.3 million jobs worldwide between 2020 and 2025. Explore our dedicated renewable energy and cleantech jobs page if you’re interested in joining this boom and working in the renewable energy industry.

Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy

From our overview of the rise of global wind energy, it is clear to see the importance and benefits of wind as a source of power in the reduction of the use of fossil fuels and the overall fight against climate change. However, despite all the benefits, there are downsides to wind regarding its effects on the environment. So, let's explore the potential environmental impacts of wind energy production and the building of onshore and offshore wind farms. 

Impact on Birds

 The discussion around the link between wind farms and bird deaths has been well documented.  In the US, wind turbines kill between 140,000 and 328,000 birds yearly.  In the UK, RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) stated that whilst they support the use and the growth of wind as renewable energy, it has called for future wind farms to be located and designed to minimise the impacts on bird populations. For example, avoid building wind turbines near migration pathways and habitats. 

Seafloor Habitat Destruction by Offshore Wind Farms

The environmental effects of offshore wind farms are often overlooked as they are hidden beneath the waves. For example, many offshore wind turbines need foundations placed deep into the seabed. The drilling of the ocean floor to place these foundations can destroy local marine habitats while stirring up large amounts of sediment. 

When the sediment comes back down to settle on the ocean bed, it can smother sponges, corals, and anemones, jeopardising their survival. This swirl of sediment can also block out sunlight, which means plants and algae on the sed bed struggle to photosynthesise and feed themselves. 

The Power of Solar Energy

Back in 1954, the first silicon photovoltaic cell was created, and even though its solar efficiency only reached 4%, it managed to generate enough energy to power small electrical equipment, such as a small toy Ferris wheel and a solar-powered radio transmitter. Since then, through continuous advancement, solar energy has become one of the world's most significant and effective natural resources. 

It uses the sun's energy, either through photovoltaic cells in solar panels or directly as thermal energy, to produce electricity and can heat water, power homes and businesses, and power electric cars. Moreover, the rate at which the Earth intercepts solar energy is 10,000 times greater than the rate at which people consume energy. 

Did you know China is the world's largest producer of solar energy, producing an incredible 340PW? Since 2011, China has invested over $50 billion in new PV supply capacity. Incredibly, this amount is ten times higher than the amount invested by the entire continent of Europe. This investment supports their goal of 33% of electricity being generated from renewables by 2025. 

3 Benefits of Solar Energy 

With solar energy being seen as essential to the health and survival of our planet, we need to explore its benefits to understand its importance and growth worldwide. 

An infinite source of energy

Like wind power, solar uses a constant and inexhaustible energy source, this time the sun. This everlasting availability sets it apart from fossil fuels which will eventually run out. The sun will always be available to provide us with this vital energy source.

Pollution Free

Generating electricity from solar power does not produce any harmful gasses or waste. Solar photovoltaic panels convert solar energy that is entirely pollution free, which is not the case with fossil fuels such as coal and oil. 

Very Low Maintenance Costs

While the initial cost of setting up a solar plant can be expensive, once they are built, the performance and maintenance costs are low, especially compared to traditional power plants and oil rigs. The cost of the process of producing electricity, cleaning, and maintaining solar photovoltaic panels once they are installed, is extremely low.

Reduces Energy Bills

With the cost of living crisis causing havoc worldwide, the rise of energy bills has highlighted the need to move from fossil fuels to renewables as they are cheaper, more accessible, and less reliant on supply chains. 

Furthermore, as well as large-scale commercial solar plants to supply energy, individuals can have smaller-scale solar panels fitted to their homes and businesses to help cut their bills and reliance on fossil fuels. 

3 Environmental Impacts of Solar Energy

We have seen many benefits of solar energy in the fight against climate change, and it is a critical hope for our planet's future. However, it can still negatively affect the environment. Let's explore some of the most significant environmental impacts. 

Habitat Loss

When solar companies set up large-scale solar energy systems, such as the Bhadia Solar Park in India (14,000 acres) or the Noor Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (49,400 acres), they require a large expanse of land. Building the sites on this land requires them to clear everything, including vegetation. Clearing these areas can lead to the loss of habitats for local wildlife. 

Furthermore, the construction of solar facilities can cause soil compaction and erosion, contributing to the destruction of wildlife habitats. One way to avoid the environmental impact on habitats for future projects is to build on already existing unused infrastructure sites such as brownfields, parking lots, and commercial buildings. 

Environmental Impact of Mining for Materials

Solar Panels are typically made up of silicon, glass, and metals such as silver, copper, indium, and tellurium. These metals can cause environmental issues as they have to be mined. The mining process of these metals produces greenhouse gas emissions and can cause soil, water, and air pollution. 

Solar Panel Recycling 

To highlight the scale of the panels needed in the fight against climate change, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has set a goal of solar energy accounting for 30% of energy generation in the US by 2030. Over 1 billion solar panels will be needed to collect sufficient solar energy to achieve this target. 

Whilst this is excellent news for reducing carbon emissions, one area that has yet to keep up with the growth of solar energy is solar panel recycling. Solar panels have an average lifespan of around 25 years; once they no longer have any use, they must be disposed of. It is this disposal process that is causing environmental issues. 

As previously mentioned, solar panels are made up of precious metals. Recycling and reproducing the panels rather than mining for more materials will reduce the carbon footprint. Unfortunately, while scientists have been working on recycling solutions, there isn't an effective system to recycle old panels, and there is a lack of places to do it. The lack of options creates a build-up of 'e-waste'. 

While the waste heap of discarded panels is currently relatively low at about 250,000 metric tonnes, by 2050, it is expected to grow to 78 million metric tonnes. Furthermore, the constant mining of the materials used in solar panels to build the panels, rather than recycling them, could make them scarce. 

Is Renewable Energy Worth it? 

While as we have explored, renewable energy does have its downsides when it comes to its environmental impact. Furthermore, there are vast improvements to be made that can help reduce their effect, for example, recycling old solar panels. However, the benefits of renewable energy and its crucial role in our planet's survival far outweigh the environmental impacts. 

Most scientists and experts agree that fossil fuels will eventually run out, with some stating that Earth's reserves will run out in as few as 50 years. However, renewables such as wind and solar won't run out and will always be available to provide energy. Therefore, investing in renewables now is a significant way to ensure a greener, cleaner, and more sustainable future. 

Another argument for the increased focus on renewable energy sources is comparing the production of carbon emissions, which is a significant cause of climate change, of fossil fuels and renewables. 

For example, the carbon footprint of solar is roughly 20 times less than that of coal-powered electricity sources. With solar panels lasting approximately 25 years, a considerable amount of carbon is kept out of the atmosphere. Furthermore, when you compare wind to coal, the emissions from coal are a staggering 90 times higher. 

In addition, when generating electricity from fossil fuels, other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, are released into the atmosphere, creating smog and acid rain. As a result, humans can create serious health issues such as asthma, bronchitis, and heart attacks. Therefore, reducing the use of fossil fuels will help remove these pollutants and help the world breathe healthier. 

Through the call to action from experts, scientists, governments, and events such as Cop 27, we have a real fight on our hands for the survival of our planet, and we need to act now. So are renewable energies worth it? We cannot afford not to use them; they are the future. As Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, declared:

'It's time for leaders — public and private alike — to stop talking about renewable energy as a distant project of the future. Without renewables, there can be no future. We don't have a moment to lose.'

Experts in Renewable Energy Executive Search

Want to play your part in building a cleaner, greener, and healthier world? CSG Talent provides specialist Renewable Energy executive search services to place exceptional candidates in senior-level and technical roles within the renewable energy industry, focusing on the solar, wind, and cleantech markets. 

Our consultants have built a global network to connect high-quality talent to renewable energy businesses. So connect with one of our team, and let's discuss how we can assist with your organisation's talent strategy or take that next step in your career.

Visit our dedicated renewable energy recruitment page for more information on the latest wind and solar jobs. Together, let's build a better world.