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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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Matching supply and demand: grid and storage

In this report, the environmental impacts of different electricity supply technologies are analysed on a per-kWh basis and as implemented in International Energy Agency (IEA) scenarios. Energy resources, however, differ in their spatial and temporal distribution. As electricity supply needs to match electricity demand for the reason of stability, a transmission and distribution grid system is required not only to transport the electricity to customers but also to ensure an adequate quality of supply in terms of voltage, frequency, and reliability. The characteristics of resources and technologies for electricity generation, as well as the characteristics of power demand, have important implications for the design of the transmission and distribution system. A high fraction of variable renewable energy (VRE) sources such as wind and solar energy presents a special challenge to system operation; these sources may require energy storage or flexible demand. In this Chapter, we discuss implications for electricity transmission and distribution of different generation technologies and system configurations, evaluate the need for electricity storage, and review assessments of environmental impacts of such systems.

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