TED Conversations

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: Hydropower, often associated with dams, is another common source of "green energy" with effects on biodiversity that are often overlooked. The construction of dams often includes the straightening of the river channel to optimize the amount of energy harnessed by the dam, which reduces and eliminates smaller streams that provide necessary food and water sources to many organisms. Also, the implementation of dams usually results in flooding of the river's natural floodplain; this can cause local ecosystem changes as historically "drier" lands are replaced with wetlands. Dams affect many species both within and outside the river. Many species of fish, aquatic invertebrates, and microorganisms that live in the river are threatened due to the reduction of essential habitat. Other species that depend on the river ecosystem would also be negatively affected due to the possible reduction in food and water sources. The flooding caused by the implementation of dams, as well, displaces many animal and plant species.

    One positive note with hydropower that is not true for other sources of clean energy (i.e. nuclear, wave energy, biofuels) is the fact that dams can be deconstructed and natural ecosystems can rebuild themselves over time through secondary succession. There is currently no known way to properly dispose of the wastes from nuclear fusion, energy harvested from waves could cause huge changes to relatively unknown ocean ecosystems, and biofuels involve the massive transition of natural ecosystems into monocultures.

    Dams rely on natural physical processes, mainly magnetic and gravitational forces, to harness energy. The link below from the U.S.G.S describes how dams convert energy from rivers into usable electrical power.

    Although the use of dams as an energy source is not a biologically sound method of obtaining energy in the long term, I think it could be a good source of energy until we can develop new energy sources.

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      Apr 23 2013: Hydro-power definitely has both pros and cons. Its a successful way to farm consistent energy from the environment but this farming only as a contributes a small percentage of energy to our grid. Habitat destruction by either flooding plains or trapping of water in one location may seriously impact biological ecosystems. Although this may be a good source for some renewable energy it does not seem to be promising for a primary renewable energy source.
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      Apr 24 2013: I think with this, though, it is important to take into consideration the major issues that dams have already caused in terms of biodiversity. Especially in the Pacific Northwest of the US with the Bonneville dam, there has been some serious damage to salmon populations, as the dams impede the natural migration patterns of salmon up the Columbia river. While fish ladders do help to minimize this issue, there is no substitute for the fish's natural migration patterns. The drastic changes to the river downstream of the dams also have huge repercussions on wildlife. Lower water levels through off plant growth regions and that can have serious effects on the diversity within an area.

      Yes, hydro-power causes far less pollution, generally causing some sedimentary disruption within the water supply and causing essentially zero atmospheric contamination, there are some serious drawbacks to damming up rivers.

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