A new study from researchers at Norwegian University of Science and Technology finds that a low-carbon electricity future is feasible and will also significantly reduce air pollution, while continuing with business as usual will increase it.
What's different about this study is that it looked at the raw material requirements of shifting to renewable and low-carbon technologies - requirements that can be significantly higher per unit of energy than for conventional power, and the processing and manufacturing of which generates its own pollution.
Integrated life-cycle assessment of electricity-supply scenarios confirms global environmental benefit of low-carbon technologies was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study looked at five key technologies: concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, wind power, hydropower, and gas- and coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS). It assessed technology implementation and material requirements to 2050, taking the environmental impacts of production of those technologies into account.
The researchers did the study because so little is known about the environmental costs of a widespread global shift to renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power, and what the effect of this shift might have on material requirements.
Low carbon technologies can demand much more use of raw materials per unit of power generation than conventional fossil fuel plants, the researchers noted. For example, photovoltaic systems need 11-40 times more copper than fossil fuel production, while wind power plants need 6-14 times more iron than fossil fuel production.
"Energy production-related climate change mitigation targets are achievable, given a slight increase in the demand for iron or cement, as two examples, and will reduce the current emission rates of air pollutants," [lead author Thomas] Gibon said.