Wind Power or Fossil Fuels: Facing up to the Impacts of Our Energy Usage

The previous two articles have looked at different aspects of wind power.  The first one focused on the potential of wind power as an energy source and the second one looked at environmental impacts.  It cited examples of birds and bats being killed as a result of flying into turbines.  In the case of bats their lungs can collapse or explode when flying near turbines due to changes in barometric pressure.  Terrestrial species can also be impacted when turbines are placed near food sources or forests are fragmented during installation.  Nevertheless, if investments are not made in wind power and other renewable energy sources, the alternative is fossil fuels which also pose serious environmental hazards.

The two most common fossil fuel producers of electricity are natural gas and coal.  Coal, which is the second highest producer of electricity, emits mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and methane.  According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists of December 2017, coal plants produce 42% of mercury emissions.  Mercury can damage the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, and also threaten child development.  Sulphur dioxide forms acidic particles which is linked to asthma,   bronchitis, and acid rain.  Nitrogen oxides irritate lung tissue, exacerbate asthma and make people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses.   Carbon dioxide is the main byproduct of coal and is the main driver of global warming.  Approximately 10% of U.S. methane emissions come from coal mining and it is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a 100 year period.

According to data from the U. S. Energy Administration, natural gas produced 32% of U. S. electricity for 2017 and was the highest source.   Natural gas is frequently cited as cleaner than coal.    However, according to “No, Natural Gas Power Plants Are Not Clean” Mark Specht, Energy Analyst for Climate and Energy Programs at the  Union of Concerned Scientists, November 2018, natural gas also has a number of problems.  The article states that natural gas produces less global warming emissions than coal, but than coal is the dirtiest fuel and from that perspective, natural gas is better by comparison.  The main pollutant from natural gas is nitrogen oxide (NOx), which causes respiratory problems.   It also reacts with other substances to produce particulate matter and ozone, which cause shortness of breath, heart attacks, and premature death.

Regardless of what energy source is used,  there will always be environmental impacts and these concerns need to be taken seriously.  However, taking appropriate measures to avoid wildlife conflicts and reducing energy usage can go a long way to creating an energy source that has minimal impacts on the environment.  Both Margaret Fowle, a Conservation Biologist with VT Audobon, and Jeff Parsons a Conservation Biologist with Arrowwood Environmental,  stated that we should continue to invest in wind power.   Fowle said “proper siting, proper management and the ability to turn turbines off during migration times” were needed and it was an  “important part of mitigating climate change.”

Parsons said “We should continue to invest in wind power because seeing the negative impacts helps us to think twice about our own energy expenditure.  If we continually displace impact we will never face up to its impact on the Earth.”

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