Clean vs. Renewable Energy

Wind turbines [Photo: NREL Image Library]
Wind turbines
[Photo: NREL Image Library]

"Clean energy" refers to natural processes whose energy can be harnessed and converted to a useful form with little or minimal pollution. "Renewable energy" refers to a natural energy source that is able to be replenished at or near the rate that it is harnessed and consumed. These terms are sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably. Different renewable energy technologies can emit different types and amounts of pollution, and therefore some of these technologies are "cleaner" than others, having fewer environmental impacts.

Renewable energy technologies such as solar, geothermal, wind, biofuel, and hydropower, all have some associated ecological costs involving the manufacture, transport, and installation of the materials accounting for the physical infrastructure used to harness and convert the energy. The indirect environmental footprint associated with renewable energy technologies is usually considered to be outweighed by the relatively minimal environmental impact of the energy production technique when compared with the environmental benefits of a nonrenewable, fossil fuel-based energy source.

Renewable Energy and the Environment

There are many ecological advantages to using renewable energy in comparison to conventional forms of energy or fossil fuels. Renewable energy has the ability to help reduce the effects of climate change and generally provides "clean" or low-pollution alternatives to fossil fuels. However, renewable energy development is not free of environmental impacts. Development must be well planned out and carefully sited, and the effects on the surrounding ecosystem must be measured and monitored, in order to minimize detrimental effects to local wildlife habitat and natural resources. Indirect effects should also be considered when evaluating the environmental impacts of different types of renewable energy. For example, although air emissions associated with renewable resources are typically low, one must also consider the indirect effect of air pollution emissions from the manufacture of materials used to support the renewable energy development. In addition, soil and water resources can be affected by disturbance from the construction of roads and the renewable energy site.

Follow the links below to find out more about ecological topics related to renewable energy:

Bird ConservationBird Conservation
Bird habitat and migration routes may be affected by renewable energy development.
Climate ChangeClimate Change
Renewable energy may help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Fisheries and Aquatic ResourcesFisheries and Aquatic Resources
Hydropower projects can adversely impact fisheries and aquatic resources.
Genetic DiversityGenetic Diversity
Crops planted for use as biofuels must be evaluated for their potential effects on genetic diversity.
Habitat ImpactsHabitat Impacts
Proper siting of renewable power production facilities is important to minimize habitat impacts.
Invasive SpeciesInvasive Species
Some crops grown for biofuels are known to share characteristics with invasive plants.
Pollinators are vital to the production of certain types of biomass feedstock. Reproduction and migration of bird and bat pollinators can be adversely affected by some forms of renewable energy.

Featured Resource: Energy Explained

Energy efficient lightbulb [Photo: U.S. Energy Information Administration]
[Photo: U.S. Energy Information Administration]

The U.S. Energy Information Administration Energy Explained website provides a comprehensive guide to understanding both renewable and nonrenewable forms of energy.

The site includes information about hydropower, biomass, ethanol and biodiesel, wind, geothermal, solar energy, and the different forms of production of each of these sources. Additionally, there are descriptions of how these types of energy are harnessed and converted for use as heat and electricity, as well as information about the respective environmental impacts of each.

Species Spotlight

Greater sage grouse [Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]
Greater sage grouse
[Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]

Greater Sage Grouse
Centrocercus urophasianus

Description: The greater sage grouse is a large bird that can grow up to 30 inches long and two feet tall, and can weigh up to seven pounds. This is a ground-dwelling, round-winged bird that has legs feathered to the base of its toes, and has a long pointed tail. Males have white necks and air sacks on their breasts that they inflate to attract females, who are usually smaller in size.

Life History: Males puff up their air sacs for display on breeding grounds known as "leks". Females visit these leks to mate, and then raise the young without help from the males, who play no role in raising the young. The same leks are often used for many years. Although many males may display at a lek, only one or two males are picked by the females for mating.

Habitat: Are found in sagebrush habitat at elevations between 4,000 and 9,000 feet. Feed exclusively on sagebrush during the winter.

Distribution: Found in many western U.S. states including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, California, and in parts of Canada including Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Status: The traditional breeding grounds, or leks, are vital to the reproductive success of the greater sage grouse. Currently, these leks are being threatened as a result of nonrenewable and renewable energy development as well as grazing, invasive species, and wildfires. It has been found that the grouse will avoid their leks if there is a disturbance such as a road or well within a few miles. Also, oil and gas development has historically led to die-offs of the grouse. As of March 2010, the species is currently not listed as endangered, but is on a list of candidate species that is reviewed annually.

Resources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Las Vegas Sun News

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