Externalities of Energy Generation

Because of repeated discussions of this subject in comments under my posts, I decided to make a list of externalities for various energy generation forms. For this I chose the most popular energy generation methods as currently in use, i.e. I excluded for example geothermal and solar thermal energy. The list is hardly complete, so you are welcome to add further points in comments (also for further energy generation methods).

First of all I should briefly explain what an externality is, as defined in economics: it is a side-effect of a production or exchange process that affects third parties, but remains unpaid for. The classic textbook example of a negative externality is that of an upstream factory that pollutes the river and thus reduces downstream fish-catch without having to bear the economic consequences.

In the following I try to collect negative externalities for given energy generation methods:

OIL

  • CO2-emissions from burning
  • import dependence
  • environmental damages from unconventional extraction, especially tar sands
  • potential environmental damages from ocean drilling (similar to what happened with the Deepwater Horizon)
  • environmental damages from pipeline leaks
  • CO2-emissions from “disposable” natural gas burning, e.g. in the Niger delta
  • use for burning instead for chemicals, pharmaceuticals and others

COAL

  • CO2-emissions from burning
  • sulfur, mercury and other emissions with adverse health and environmental impacts (e.g., acid rain
  • import dependence
  • heavy environmental damages from opencast lignite mining

GAS

  • CO2-emissions
  • import dependence
  • CO2-emissions from pipeline leaks
  • groundwater pollution from shale gas fracking

NUCLEAR

  • danger of a major accident
  • import dependence (uranium)
  • potential aim of terrorist attacks
  • disposal of radioactive waste
  • environmental damages from uranium mining

SOLAR

  • environmental impacts of silicon extraction and solar silicon purification
  • environmental and health impacts from cadmium (used in some cells)
  • negative impact on landscapes (in German there is a nice word for this effect: Landschaftsverschandelung)

WIND

  • Landschaftsverschandelung
  • land use (not usable for other purposes, including ecosystems)
  • danger of killing bats and birds
  • moving shadows
  • noise
  • externalities from steel production

HYDROPOWER

  • ecological damages from flooding (including CO2-emissions)
  • lowered efficiency and instability of water cycle through higher evaporation
  • earthquakes
  • displacement of communities
  • possible breeding of illness vectors (e.g. mosquitos)
  • Landschaftsverschandelung

GEOTHERMY

  • potential risk of earthquakes

BIOMASS/BIOFUEL/BIOGAS

  • land used for growing fuels instead of food
  • monocultures with all related ecological consequences
  • environmental damages from intensive application of pesticides and fertilizers
  • in the case of biogas: stink
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