Energy production and consumption affect global health and threaten environmental problems. Among the most dangerous consequences are air and water pollution, climate change, and the accumulation of nuclear waste. The demand for energy is growing, and with it the burden on the environment. Plus-one.ru tells us how to solve energy problems and whether there is an ecological energy industry.

The environmental problems of energy

Today, energy consumption is the largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. This is the conclusion reached by the World Resources Institute (WRI). According to 2021 data, the energy sector (including transportation, heat and power generation, residential and commercial buildings, industrial production, construction and other) accounts for 76% of global emissions (37.2 GtCO2-equivalent). Ten countries are responsible for 68% of them. China is in first place (26.1% of all emissions) and USA is in second place (12.67%). They are followed by the European Union (7.52%), India (7.08%) and Russia (5.36%). Ecology and energy – let’s look at the relationship between the two.

Depletion of natural resources

Most electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels: coal, natural gas, oil, shale and peat. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2021, coal is the world’s largest source of energy, producing almost 37% of the world’s electricity, followed by natural gas at 23.5%.

The trouble is that fossil fuels are a finite natural resource that is rapidly dwindling. The Worldometer’s reference website reports that the planet has less than 200 billion tons of proven oil reserves. That’s enough to last 47 years at current consumption levels. Coal reserves worldwide total just over 1 trillion tons, and natural gas reserves total some 170 billion cubic meters. At the current rate of consumption, that will be enough for 133 and 52 years respectively.

Energy supply and pollution

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), almost all types of power plants have a negative impact on the environment. But some more than others. Burning fossil fuels, biomass, and waste releases carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and heavy metals (like mercury) into the atmosphere. According to the IEA, coal, oil, and gas were the major sources of CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in 2018.

However, coal, biomass, and waste do not burn completely. Thermal power plants (TPPs) produce ash and slag. These contain toxic elements such as arsenic or mercury. Volatile compounds are airborne with the flue gases. In addition, as the EIA points out, coal-fired power plants either send ash to landfills or store it mixed with water in special reservoirs. In the U.S., there have been known cases of pollutants leaking into water bodies.

Impact on water resources

Energy affects water sources even at the fuel extraction stage. According to UNESCO, when a well is drilled, more than 120 tons of oil, up to 400 tons of drill cuttings, and more than 1,000 tons of other wastes are dumped into the sea. Hydrofracking production produces wastewater that can contaminate underground sources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified more than 1,000 chemical additives, including acids, in fracking fluids: much of the water used in such oil and gas development is non-recoverable.

Accidents occur during the extraction of fossil fuels, the consequences of which damage water resources. One of the biggest disasters was the explosion and subsequent fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. About 682 thousand tons of oil spilled into the ocean over 152 days and the oily slick spread over 70 thousand square kilometers. This is almost 1.5 times more than the territory of Moscow and the Moscow Region.

Water is “involved” in the process of producing electricity, and not just at hydroelectric power plants (HPPs). The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization, explains that some thermal power plants boil water and produce energy by using steam to turn a generator. There are power plants that use water for cooling, taking it from reservoirs, lakes and rivers and then returning almost the entire volume back. The discharged water is hotter than the intake stage.