Environmental impacts of renewable energy technologies — страница 3

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environmental issues. Air and water pollution are two leading concerns, along with the safe disposal of hazardous waste, siting, and land subsidence. Since these resources would be exploited in a highly centralized fashion, reducing their environmental impacts to an acceptable level should be relatively easy. But it will always be difficult to site plants in scenic or otherwise environmentally sensitive areas. The method used to convert geothermal steam or hot water to electricity directly affects the amount of waste generated. Closed-loop systems are almost totally benign, since gases or fluids removed from the well are not exposed to the atmosphere and are usually injected back into the ground after giving up their heat. Although this technology is more expensive than

conventional open-loop systems, in some cases it may reduce scrubber and solid waste disposal costs enough to provide a significant economic advantage. Open-loop systems, on the other hand, can generate large amounts of solid wastes as well as noxious fumes. Metals, minerals, and gases leach out into the geothermal steam or hot water as it passes through the rocks. The large amounts of chemicals released when geothermal fields are tapped for commercial production can be hazardous or objectionable to people living and working nearby. At The Geysers, the largest geothermal development, steam vented at the surface contains hydrogen sulfide (H3S)-accounting for the area's "rotten egg" smell-as well as ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide. At hydrothermal plants carbon

dioxide is expected to make up about 10 percent of the gases trapped in geopressured brines. For each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, however, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted is still only about 5 percent of the amount emitted by a coal- or oil-fired power plant. Scrubbers reduce air emissions but produce a watery sludge high in sulfur and vanadium, a heavy metal that can be toxic in high concentrations. Additional sludge is generated when hydrothermal steam is condensed, causing the dissolved solids to precipitate out. This sludge is generally high in silica compounds, chlorides, arsenic, mercury, nickel, and other toxic heavy metals. One costly method of waste disposal involves drying it as thoroughly as possible and shipping it to licensed hazardous waste sites.

Research under way at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York points to the possibility of treating these wastes with microbes designed to recover commercially valuable metals while rendering the waste non-toxic. Usually the best disposal method is to inject liquid wastes or redissolved solids back into a porous stratum of a geothermal well. This technique is especially important at geopressured power plants because of the sheer volume of wastes they produce each day. Wastes must be injected well below fresh water aquifers to make certain that there is no communication between the usable water and waste-water strata. Leaks in the well casing at shallow depths must also be prevented. In addition to providing safe waste disposal, injection may also help prevent land subsidence.

At Wairakei, New Zealand, where wastes and condensates were not injected for many years, one area has sunk 7.5 meters since 1958. Land subsidence has not been detected at other hydrothermal plants in long-term operation. Since geopressured brines primarily are found along the Gulf of Mexico coast, where natural land subsidence is already a problem, even slight settling could have major implications for flood control and hurricane damage. So far, however, no settling has been detected at any of the three experimental wells under study. Most geothermal power plants will require a large amount of water for cooling or other purposes. In places where water is in short supply, this need could raise conflicts with other users for water resources. The development of hydrothermal energy

faces a special problem. Many hydrothermal reservoirs are located in or near wilderness areas of great natural beauty such as Yellowstone National Park and the Cascade Mountains. Proposed developments in such areas have aroused intense opposition. If hydrothermal-electric development is to expand much further in the United States, reasonable compromises will have to be reached between environmental groups and industry. Biomass Biomass power, derived from the burning of plant matter, raises more serious environmental issues than any other renewable resource except hydropower. Combustion of biomass and biomass-derived fuels produces air pollution; beyond this, there are concerns about the impacts of using land to grow energy crops. How serious these impacts are will depend on how