Renewable energy could be the technology that saves us and the planet from changing climate. We have to be careful though – some aren’t as environmentally friendly as they seem. Renewable energy has the potential to cause harm if we aren’t careful. Here are two cases when going green might not be better.
The Search for Clean Hydrogen
Hydrogen certainly has potential as a clean energy source. In fact, many think hydrogen is crucial to a zero-carbon future. The infrastructure bill in 2021 included $8 billion invested into hydrogen production, storage, and use.
The problem is it can be hard to find a clean and cheap source of hydrogen. While storing hydrogen has its own complexities, the biggest challenge is producing hydrogen in an environmentally friendly way.
There are many different proposed methods of producing hydrogen, each with varying impacts to the environment. Each method has been designated a color – gray, brown or black, blue, green, and pink.
The current method, called gray hydrogen, is through heating natural gas. This method isn’t very environmentally friendly though, as a lot of carbon dioxide is also produced. Brown hydrogen also creates a lot of carbon dioxide by extracting the hydrogen from coal. This defeats the whole point of the hydrogen, which is to lower carbon dioxide emissions.
More environmentally friendly methods include blue hydrogen – where the carbon dioxide produced is captured and stored underground – and green hydrogen – where renewable energy is used to split water molecules and extract the hydrogen. Pink hydrogen is the same as green hydrogen – only using nuclear power.
Clearly, green, or pink hydrogen is the best option and should be used. In fact, the infrastructure bill last year mandates that one of the four hubs needs to be for green hydrogen.
However, experts still think that blue hydrogen has its benefits. For one, it uses old, reliable technology. And it still uses fossil fuels but mitigates the carbon emissions. By including and benefiting natural gas, the switch to hydrogen could be sped up through the cooperation of the powerful natural gas industry.
Loss of Biodiversity from Renewable Energy
There is a renewable energy land rush happening. As more and more are committing to renewable energy, more desert land is being used. Solar farms, wind farms, and lithium mining are all threatening fragile desert ecosystems and rare species.
Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin Director for the Center for Biological Diversity told National Geographic that the list of threatened animals from renewable energy projects is long.
There are at least 6 species threatened by lithium mining, including Tiehm’s buckwheat, Kings River pyrg (a tiny snail), and Ash Meadows ladies tresses (an orchid).
According to Donnelly, an additional 3 desert species are threatened by solar energy and 6 species are threatened by geothermal energy production.
Scientists are pushing for better quality monitoring and investments to determine what species are impacted by a renewable energy project.
A study done by the University of California, Davis, found that the conservation measures put into place for the construction of a solar power plant in California, did not go far enough to protect the fragile plant and pollinating bug species.
Advocates for the rare desert environments are pushing for alternatives like using already disturbed land like parking lots in cities to install solar panels. At the same time, other scientists say this solution isn’t fast enough to fight climate change.
The best solution will be a balancing act between protecting the sensitive species in desert environments and accelerating the fight against greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Researchers are working hard to find that sweet spot.