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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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Geothermal power

Geothermal energy is thermal energy generated and stored in the earth. Ninety nine per cent of the earth’s volume has temperatures over 1,000°C, with only 0.1 per cent at temperatures less than 100°C. The total heat content of the earth is estimated to be about 1013 EJ and is thus immense. The main sources of geothermal energy are the residual energy from planet formation and the energy continuously generated by radionuclide decay. Earth radiates heat to the atmosphere, with a thermal power of 40 million MW without experiencing any surface cooling. This amount of heat is equivalent to the thermal power of about 13,000 1-GWe nuclear power plants. Thus, the geothermal resource base is ubiquitous and sufficiently large to be a significant energy source. Geothermal resources consist of thermal energy stored within the earth in rock, trapped steam or water. Exploitation of geothermal energy occurs through two means: electricity generation and direct use in space heating, balneotherapy, greenhouses, etc. In this study, only power generation is considered.

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