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Noel Laporte

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What form of renewable energy has or will have the lowest impact on biodiversity?

Climate change, air pollution, rising sea levels and species extinction can all be attributed to the increasing usage of non-renewable energy in the world today. Non-renewable energy reserves are diminishing and finite with an ever-increasing demand from countries around the world. Coal, natural gas and oil all have detrimental effects on the environment. These effects are both local and global, harming species throughout the world. As we consider different renewable forms of energy, can we rank their potential impacts on biodiversity?


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    Apr 23 2013: Concentrating solar thermal plants could fulfill a significant chunk of our more immediate energy demands while other technologies progress. Most people associate solar with photovoltaic solar cells, but PV technology isn’t quite there yet and it’s incredibly expensive. Solar thermal systems on the other hand are much less expensive, more efficient, and because of their heat storage capabilities, are able to operate when there is no daylight.

    Land and water are required for CSP systems and both of these can impact biodiversity, however, unlike PV cells, hazardous and rare materials aren’t required for their manufacture. CSPs can be built in areas of lower diversity such as abandoned mining lands and transportation and transmission corridors. Different types of thermal technologies require different amounts of water for cooling but decreased water consumption is generally paired with decreases in efficiency. Furthermore, places that are best suited for solar technology are generally drier. The world’s largest CSP is gearing up to come online and is located in the Mojave Desert. But this region’s water supply is insecure as Lake Mead dwindles.

    The carbon footprint for the entire life cycle of solar technologies, including manufacture, materials transport, maintenance, etc., is also far less when compared with that of natural gas and coal.

    (1) http://www.technologyreview.com/news/512551/brightsource-pushes-ahead-on-another-massive-solar-thermal-plant/
    (2) http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts-solar-power.html
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      Apr 23 2013: Hi Chelsea! I am again returning to Stewart Brand's point here that solar power takes up about 50 square miles per GW. He quotes Saul Griffith that it would it take an area roughly the size of the United States to get 13 clean terawatts of energy from wind, solar and biofuels combined. Given what we have learned about extinction risks due to habitat loss, what do you think the tradeoffs of CSP systems versus nuclear energy? Do CSP systems take up less habitat than solar panels?

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        Apr 23 2013: Unfortunately, solar thermal takes up about twice as much land area as photovoltaics. It isn't ideal, but its a start and I think multiple approaches will have to be taken towards offsetting our reliance on fossil fuels. The plants can be set up on less desirable (already destroyed) land tracts as well.

        Regarding nuclear, the waste is a serious concern. More disasters like Fukushima will undoubtedly occur because human negligence isn't going away any time soon. If we attempt to rely more heavily on nuclear during our transition away from oil, I don't see industry giving up on the plants they will have already built to switch to the greener technologies, it would affect their bottom lines .. we'll be up to our ears in radioactive waste.
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      Apr 23 2013: I think an alternative to large solar thermal plants, which take up a significant amount of space, would be this new idea of "Artificial leafs". The idea is to literally preform photosynthesis. The artificial leaf is a small catalyst-coated wafer of silicon, this small wafer is dropped into a bucked of water which starts the reaction. The catalysts break down water into hydrogen and oxygen, and the bubbles are used to produce energy in fuel cells. One quart of water provides 100 watts of electricity for 24 hours a day. This process is unlike solar panels because it can run at night, by storing the hydrogen and oxygen. This of course has a few flaws but has a great start on using a resource that if used will provide a clean and manageable waste.

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        Apr 23 2013: This is amazing. Are there any peer-reviewed journal articles describing this technology?

        I just logged in a second time to read the IET article but it is blocking me out now. Any idea why it is closed? I really want to learn more about this concept.
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        Apr 23 2013: I really am fascinated by this approach for a clean and new renewable energy source. I'm a firm believer in using the natural world as a stepping stone for technological innovation and design. Nature has been evolving the most efficient ways to perform a myriad of tasks since technically the birth of our earth. By trying to create a renewable energy system off of models such as photosynthesis we could step towards true clean renewable energy. I hope we can use models right in front of us such as plants to push towards a more natural source of renewable energy.
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      Apr 24 2013: It seems solar has been mentioned many time after this post on the above portion of the thread. From Chelsea's technology review article I was able to find another project dubbed Palen that is in the final steps of approval and is hoped to be built within the next year or two. http://www.brightsourceenergy.com/palen. While this article does not go into the specifics about impacts on the environment, the fact sheet mentions a variety of technological innovations, two of which are very interesting and would decrease environmental impacts of the technology. One, is that it uses 95% less water (supposedly) than the other Mojave plant by cooling it with air in a closed loop steam system that also recycles water. Second, it uses land efficiently by implementing taller towers on pilons which preserve plant life below by not using traditional grading techniques that require removal of plants. I think some of these improvement go to show that the energy technology with the best and most efficient implementation innovation with be the quickest to become more widespread. Many of these innovations are hard to predict.

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