Renewables have reduced environmental pressures in EU
The European Green Deal puts climate change mitigation at the core of its endeavours to sustainably recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. By 2030, 70 percent of electricity should be generated from renewable sources to enable the necessary reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050. The European Environment Agency (EEA) has investigated the impact which this transition will have in a wider focus. The study assessed the impact of all electricity generation technologies on climate change, freshwater eutrophication and ecotoxicity, particulate matter formation, acidification of soils and land occupation.
Going beyond climate mitigation, a detailed life-cycle analysis was undertaken to calculate global changes in overall environmental impacts associated with the trends in the EU power mix between 2005 and 2018. The aim was to estimate how key environmental impacts had changed by 2018, thanks to the increase in renewable sources in the electricity supply mix across the EU, relative to the benchmark year 2005.
EEA studied 16 power generation methods, of which coal, natural gas and oil had the biggest life-cycle impacts on the environment. EEA energy and environment expert Mihai Tomescu stated that “Coal generation has by far the highest impact intensity overall, leading to most impacts across the categories that we looked at and across all years”. The majority of the EU’s electricity is now free from coal, and some EU countries, most recently Portugal, have pledged to close coal plants. However, other member states, like Poland, still have no date set for when they will finish using coal.
The increase in renewable electricity generation had significantly decreased life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions at the EU level. In fact, for most of the impact categories investigated, the switch from fossil fuel to renewable electricity sources resulted in clear improvements in 2018, compared with 2005. At the EU level, the life-cycle impact potentials of eutrophication, particulate matter formation and acidification were all lower in 2018 than in 2005.
Freshwater ecotoxicity and land occupation are the two exceptions to that trend, the EEA notes. The life-cycle impact intensities of these are more evenly spread across renewable and non-renewable sources. Increasing rates of household waste incineration, which counts as a renewable electricity source, have increased the potential for freshwater ecotoxicity, while sourcing more power from “solid biomass”, such as wood, has almost doubled the amount of land area needed by the sector since 2005.
In addition, the study highlights that there are ways to decrease the relative and total impact intensities of renewables. The relatively high impact intensity of solar photovoltaics (PV) on ecotoxicity arises from emissions of mining processing metals and chlorine from the purification of solar-grade silicon. This impact can be decreased by reducing demand for raw materials, for example through better end-of-life material recovery.
Considering the worldwide surge in PV deployment and an average lifetime of 30 years for solar panels, waste volumes are certain to increase more rapidly after 2030. End-of-life recycling will help finance the future of the solar power industry. Pleasingly, progress in this field has been rapid and some processes claim recovery rates as high as 99 percent for the raw materials employed in solar panel manufacture.
Solar PV power’s greenhouse gas impact intensity is also among the highest of all renewable sources across the value chain. As the construction of solar PV modules requires both heat and electricity, and takes place globally, the cumulative effect leads to relatively high total emissions of greenhouse gases. Increasing reliance on renewable energy in manufacturing processes would help to bring down the emission intensity of solar PV components.
For biodegradable municipal solid waste, almost all ecotoxicity impact potentials arise from the incineration process itself. This means there are potential opportunities to mitigate impacts by adopting more advanced abatement technologies. Similarly, for particulate matter formation linked to biomass fuels, process emission contributions are highest during burning, indicating a potential to install further emission control measures.
Green MEP Jutta Paulus called on the European Commission to “further minimise the negative impact of renewables” when it amends key energy and waste legislation this year. She added: “It is intolerable that member states are cutting down forests to make their carbon footprint appear better than it is. That’s why we need science-based targets for sustainable biomass use.”
Demand-side management to reduce the need for standby generation during peak consumption, measures to improve energy and resource efficiency across end use sectors, and more sustainable, circular business models could further reduce some of the potential negative impacts associated with the transition to renewable power supplies, while simultaneously increasing their cost-effectiveness. For non-combustible power sources, measures also include lifetime extensions to reduce the emission intensity linked to upstream and downstream processes.
Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, commented: “Strongly reducing energy consumption and substantially increasing renewable energy are a must for a net-zero energy system and this study underlines the benefits of this transition for our climate and our economy, while proposing ways to mitigate potential negative environmental impacts of renewables.” Trio added that “Renewable projects are set to grow. Hence, we need the right framework to steer investments in renewables in the coming years while ensuring that we opt for the most sustainable deployment of renewables in Europe. Climate, energy and biodiversity policies should reinforce each other.”
Overall, the study makes clear that the shift away from coal power, by far the most environmentally destructive way of producing electricity, and towards renewables and natural gas explains the improvements in the sector’s impact.
EEA, 2021, EU renewable electricity has reduced environmental pressures; targeted actions help further reduce impacts, European Environment Agency Briefing no. 32/2020, accessed 30 January 2021.
Pickstone, S. (2021). EEA highlights multiple green benefits of renewables. Accessed 31 January 2021,https://www.endseurope.com/article/1704836/eea-highlights-multiple-green...
Taylor, Kira (2021). Shift to renewables ‘significantly decreased’ emissions, EU agency says. Accessed 31 January 2021. https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/news/shift-to-renewables-signifi...