With the rise of the green movement, there is a greater influx of eco-friendly technologies than ever before. Entire industries have modified their business operations and the products and services they provide in order to move toward environmentally cleaner practices. We’ve also found ways to incorporate earth-friendly tech in our daily lives. And while it’s easy to look at all green technology and see only the positives, the actual effects on the environment are often more complicated than that. In supporting green technology, it’s important to be well informed. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the most common types of renewable energy technologies.
Many people are familiar with the basics of solar power. Special cells within solar panels absorb energy from the sun which is then converted into usable electricity. In homes, this can be used to charge batteries capable of powering water pumps, lighting, heating and cooling systems, and cooking appliances. Businesses like Target, Walmart, and Apple also use solar panels to reduce operating costs and cut down on their use of electricity produced by coal-burning power sources. This provides the added benefit of creating positive PR for businesses who employ green practices.
The environmental benefits of an emission-free power source are clear. However, some of the processes involved in producing, maintaining, and disposing of solar panels can disrupt the local environment. For example, some solar operations require large areas of land to be cleared and fenced off to make room for solar panels. This can disturb local wildlife and change the plant life of a region. The quantities of water used to clean larger operations can also have a significant effect on local groundwater supplies.
As with any company, solar technology companies strive to keep their production costs low. According to an article by National Geographic, companies trying to break into the market are offering discounted services at the cost of their own sustainability practices. This includes excess emissions, excess water usage, and improper waste management. This is partly due to a lack of regulations between different countries and the fact that solar power is still a relatively new industry. Also because this is such a recent industry, there aren’t enough companies that specialize in recycling solar panels, so toxic materials and precious metals are trapped in panels that are no longer in use.
Even if you’re not familiar with the energy output of wind power, you might have at least noticed the tall white turbines along stretches of the highway in certain parts of the country. These turbines are strategically placed in areas that receive a large amount of wind, and as the wind turns the blades, this force is converted into electricity. Like solar power, the wind is a free, renewable resource that doesn’t produce the harmful chemical emissions of traditional oil-based energy sources.
Though wind power has fewer negative effects on the environment than other renewables, it is not faultless. Loud noises produced by turbine blades can disturb the soundscape of a region, and because the turbines are so large, they can easily distract from the natural scenery. Turbine blades also run the risk of harming bats and birds that might travel through wind farms.
One striking effect of wind farms comes from a study based in Texas (home to four of the world’s largest wind farms). Researchers found that wind farms warm up the temperature of the land beneath them. Typically, the ground beneath wind farms would cool off at night. However, the constant spinning of wind turbines circulates hot air from above down to the surface. The study suggests that if wind power continues to grow on a massive scale, this could have lasting effects on the overall weather of a region.
Most hydropower facilities require a plant to process the electricity, a dam that can be adjusted to control the flow of water, and a reservoir. As water passes through the dam, the force of the water spins turbines which generate electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, hydropower contributes more than 16 percent of electricity worldwide and nearly 85 percent of the electricity drawn from renewable resources.
Water affects all the life of a region, so it’s important to be mindful when making drastic changes to water systems. Obviously, constructing a dam and controlling the flow of water in a given system will have an impact on local wildlife. Hydroelectric power plants can change the flow, direction, and temperature of the water, which can affect the types of plants and animals that can survive there. In some areas, dams prevent fish from swimming upstream to reach their spawning areas, resulting in lower populations. Although some dams have been modified with fish ladders designed to provide a compromise, this is still very different from the natural flow of the river.
Our modes of transportation are of the most environmentally impactful technologies we use every day, and it’s often one of the first areas people consider when trying to go green. The demand for eco-friendly vehicles has increased drastically over the past few decades. Concerns about air pollution caused by gasoline-powered vehicles have created sweeping trends of people investing in cars that run on electricity, hybrid gas-electric systems, and alternative energy sources such as hydrogen and biofuels.
While these can greatly reduce the amount of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere, it’s not always easy to tell the true net benefits of eco-friendly vehicles. For example, if the electricity used to charge the batteries of electric cars comes from a power grid that draws energy from coal or oil, it’s possible the negative impacts on the environment could be greater than that of a carbon-fueled car.
What can you do?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, just under 15 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. is created using renewable energy sources. While the increased focus on alternative energy sources can create a new, healthier foundation for our energy consumption habits around the world, we need to pay attention to the methods we use to get there. It’s important not to take green products and sustainability practices for granted, even with companies that have established themselves as eco-friendly.
If you want to have a positive effect on the environment, choose companies that clearly outline their sustainability practices—not simply the positive effects of their products. Sometimes this may mean paying a bit more for the same technology, but if your goal is to use green technology to create a healthier world, saving money on the cheapest tech might not be worth the environmental cost later.