The Cost of Renewable Energy: Are Renewables Really Green?

The global green rush to move away from fossil fuel dependence has incontestably led to a plethora of renewable energy initiatives. From the traditional renewable energy like hydropower, wind, solar and biofuel, today’s alternative renewable energies using disruptive technologies promise innumerable avenues for a host of communities and nations. Yet, are Renewables really green?

The concept of renewable energy generally denotes clean energy systems that do not contribute to greenhouse gas emission (GHG) and climate change.  As renewables get into top gear, growing evidence of non-inclusion of social conscience in the name of renewable energy development, as well as severe environmental damage is unmasking the dark
side of renewables. Every major renewable energy source has drawn criticism from leading environmental groups: hydro for river habitat destruction, wind for avian mortality, solar for desert over-development, biomass for air emissions, and geothermal for depletion and toxic discharges.

The global hydropower market according to investment analysts is predicted to expand over the next few years as a less risky and more popular clean energy.  While the predictions sound promising, controversies over mega hydropower dam projects and their socio-environmental sustainability issues present confounding facts.  Mega hydro dams have been successful in Canada, the United States and other industrialized nations; however, the
same cannot be said for the tropical regions.   Deforestation and the flooding (inundation) of thousands of hectares of rainforest for mega hydro dam projects in the Amazon and Borneo, which represent the planet’s largest and oldest rainforests have received intense criticisms.
Further, due to the alterations of the composition and density of vectors, incidences of public health problems are on the rise and even death or extinction of animal and plant life as far as 100 km from the mega dam site have been reported.

In 2013, National Geographic expounded on the extinction of endangered migratory fish in the upstream of mega dams in most South American countries like Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay.  With growing legal disputes over indigenous land encroachments, mega dam hydro projects in these regions have become controversial as well as complicated for clean energy investors.  The Belo Monte Dam, for instance, expected to be one of the largest after the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Brazilian-Paraguayan Itaipu Dam; continues to be legally disputed by the Kayapos and indigenous communities who have been living there for centuries.

Wind power is currently the environmentalists’ favorite source of renewable energy and is thought be the most likely renewable energy source to replace fossil fuel in the generation of electricity in the 21st century. Despite its revered status within the orthodox environmental community, wind power poses several major dilemmas. First, wind remains uneconomic despite heavy subsidies from ratepayers and taxpayers over the last two decades. Second, from an environmental viewpoint, wind farms are noisy, land intensive, unsightly, and hazardous to birds, including endangered species.

Nonetheless, one of the factors occasioning this state of affair is the inefficient and inequitable social and environmental impact assessment (SEIA) conducted prior to these projects – to demonstrate greater social-environmental accountability. For instance, the real cost of renewable energy installation such as noise and loss of habitat are not taken into account when the cost of renewable energy is calculated – but they are still very real cost! Therefore, the economic, social, and environmental implications of renewable energy projects are what consist the real cost of renewable energy.


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