Due to widespread concerns that the use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change, and that the supplies of these energy sources are on the decline, many experts are calling for increased use of renewable energy systems. Because renewable systems utilise natural sources -- sun, water and wind -- to produce energy, their advocates contend that they are far more environmentally safe and sustainable. Still, there are various opinions as to what the social, economic and environmental impacts of such systems are.
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Renewable Energy Systems
There are various types of renewable energy systems that utilise natural resources to produce power. Unlike fossil fuels, which take hundreds of thousands of years to form, these systems use the sun's rays or rain to produce energy and thus are categorised as renewable. In addition to systems that use the wind, sun or water to produce wind energy, solar energy or hydropower, respectively, renewable systems include those that are bio-thermal or geothermal. Bio-energy systems utilise products from animals and plants to generate electricity, while geothermal systems harness the heat that emanates from the interior of the Earth to produce power.
Humanity's ability to extract and utilise fossil fuels has been the catalyst for technological and industrial development that has led to unprecedented socioeconomic prosperity in many regions of the world. While proponents of non-renewable energy systems argue that fossil fuels continue to be much more economically feasible than renewable energy sources, environmental advocates and organisations such as the United Nations contend that sustainable energy can also have positive economic impacts. The price of renewable energy sources are not as prone to market fluctuations as oil or natural gas, and solar- or wind-powered systems are capable of supplying energy to developing or less-accessible regions, which may not have the financial means or infrastructure to utilise fossil fuels. In addition, experts predict that increasing investment in renewable energy systems will continue to produce thousands of jobs worldwide.
Most environmental advocates contend that energy systems that utilise water, solar or wind to produce power create no carbon dioxide emissions once they are constructed and therefore do not contribute to climate change. In addition, unlike the nuclear and oil industry, most renewable energy systems do not produce hazardous byproducts and waste that can severely damage or destroy an ecosystem. Despite these positives, some of these renewable energy systems do come with adverse environmental impacts. For example, hydropower projects such as dams can negatively affect fish and wildlife through obstructing natural water flows, and the massive water reservoirs they create may unalterably change the surrounding ecosystem. Another concern regarding environmental impacts is the amount of agricultural land that may be required to generate significant levels of biomass energy, as well as the amount of air pollution that stems from its use in comparison to other renewable systems.
Due to the varying economic and environmental impacts of renewable energy systems, the increased use of sustainable power will likely have significant social consequences too. For example, the widespread use of renewable energy systems may lead to increasing or decreasing employment rates in certain regions, depending on their industrial base and whether they are completely reliant on fossil fuels. Other social impacts could include increased consumer choice regarding a household's energy supplier; changing political relations internationally as certain nations end their reliance on others for energy; and expected improvements in health, as more and more citizens are no longer exposed to hazardous wastes and emissions associated with fossil fuels.
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- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
- United Nations, Department of Social and Economic Affairs: Renewable Energy
- Energy Business Reports: Economic Impacts of Renewable Energy in China
- Union of Concerned Scientists: Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies
- Conserve Energy Future: What is Energy?
- Renewable Energy: Social, Economical and Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Systems