Friday, February 8, 2013

Renewable Energy and the Environment:

More Unanticipated Interactions

I continue to be fascinated by the number of unexpected impacts and interactions with the environment that people are identifying from every energy-related technology.  We are never surprised to learn of impacts from technologies that are large or that use fossil fuels or nuclear power.  However, we somehow never expect impacts from distributed technologies, or "natural" technologies such as wind, solar and biomass.

I therefore like to keep track of these impacts as I learn about them.  I have recently stumbled over a couple that were new to me.  We have heard a lot about migrating birds flying into wind farms and being killed.  Now, we are learning that even if the birds aren't killed, the existence of wind farms may affect their lives.  A study of gannets in the English Channel showed that wind farms could affect the feeding habits of the birds.  Is this serious?  I don't know.  I assume this is a preliminary finding and that more study will be needed, but in the meantime, some are raising concerns that this factor might need to be taken into account in siting decisions for wind farms.

Another article reported that replacing old, heat-trapping paving materials with new, cooler materials could could lead to higher electricity bills for surrounding buildings!  This is because the new paving materials stay cool by reflecting significantly more of the sun's rays than traditional pavements. If the rays are reflected back into space, it helps cool surrounding areas.  However, a portion of these rays can be reflected onto the windows of nearby buildings. In the study reported, windows facing the reflective pavements got 40 percent more daily sunshine in summer (12 percent more in the winter) as windows facing  traditional paving surfaces.

This finding demonstrates yet again that trying to improve one thing can have negative effects in other areas.  Again, is this serious?  Most likely, ways will be found to overcome the effect now that it's been discovered.  In fact, the article even indicated that the new materials could have a positive effect in areas where buildings can automatically respond to additional sunlight because they are equipped with smart lighting solutions, such as dimmers run by photo-sensitive cells.  However, buildings without these features do not fare as well.  Thus, there is a solution, but it can add to the cost of implementing the improvements.

The point of mentioning these findings is not to try to slam alternate technologies.  I firmly believe that most of these types of findings can be addressed successfully and are not "make or break" factors for the viability of a technology.  My major reason for reporting on these kinds of findings is to demonstrate that nothing is simple in the energy business.  Every technology has benefits, but every technology also has shortcomings.  Most of these shortcomings can be addressed, but they first have to be recognized, and then there will be a cost to address them.  With all our technological understanding and experience, it is taking time and effort to identify and address such impacts.


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