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Green Energy Choices

The Benefits, Risks and Trade-Offs of Low-Carbon Technologies for Electricity Production

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Rising energy demand and efforts to combat climate change require a significant increase in low-carbon electricity generation. Yet, concern has been raised that rapid investment in some novel technologies could cause a new set of environmental problems. The report of the International Resource Panel (IRP) Green Energy Choices: The Benefits, Risks and Trade-Offs of Low-Carbon Technologies for Electricity Production aims to support policy-makers in making informed decision about energy technologies, infrastructures and optimal mix. The findings of the report show that, compared to coal, electricity generated by hydro, wind, solar and geothermal power can bring substantial reductions in greenhouse gases emissions (by more than 90%), and also of pollutants harmful to human health and ecosystems (by 60-90%). The capture and storage of CO2 from fossil fuel power plants will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%, but increase the pollution damaging human health and ecosystems by 5-80%. The key to sound energy decisions lies in selecting the right mix of technologies according to local or regional circumstances and putting in place safeguard procedures to mitigate and monitor potential impacts. This demands careful assessment of various impacts of different alternatives, so as to avoid the unintended negative consequences, and to achieve the most desirable mix of environmental, social and economic benefits.

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Hydropower

Hydropower is currently the most important source of renewable electricity, supplying 3,288 TWh in 2009, which amounted to 6.1 per cent of the global primary energy supply. The amount of energy supplied from this source is currently increasing by approximately 3 per cent annually; the unexploited technical potential of hydropower is on the order of 10,000 to 15,000 TWh per year (Turkenburg et al., 2012). Important unexploited resources are concentrated in regions such as Africa and South America, where the initiation of hydropower projects has great potential for accelerating economic development, which may hence incentivise the development of these resources. Important drivers for hydropower deployment are energy security and climate protection. Hydropower can be inexpensive, easy to regulate, and offer black start capability and energy storage, although these benefits depend on the type and location of the facility. Hydropower plants tend to have longer lifetime than other power plants and are more likely to be refurbished than completely removed. At the same time, hydropower alters river flow patterns and leads to large changes in river landscapes and ecology. Hydropower projects have caused large resettlements and spearheaded development in some remote regions, with both positive and negative consequences. In terms of environmental concerns, freshwater ecosystem impacts associated with the dams, reservoirs and flow patterns, concerns about water quality, and biogenic greenhouse gas (bGHG) emissions are the largest consequences of hydropower projects.

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