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A Look Beyond the Headlines: When Renewable Is Unsustainable

In a post-Paris Agreement world, one would expect to have a clearer idea of what bonuses and drawbacks the major sources of renewable energy might have for the environment, but that is not necessarily the case. Every few weeks I see an article proclaiming “Denmark leads charge in renewable energy” or “Costa Rica powered by 100 percent renewable energy for over 75 days.” At first glance, this sounds great. Global societies are reaching feasible models of large scale, renewable energy production. However, phrases like “renewable energy” have been coopted by popular culture to represent the best alternative to fossil fuels. It is important to consider the fact that not all means of harnessing renewables are beneficial for the ecosystems in which they are implemented.

In 2014 I spent six weeks on Barro Colorado Island in Panama as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  Depending on the week, there were typically between 20-50 scientists and assistants staying on the island. During meals, many scientists would sit around and, being scientists, talk science. They came from a broad number of specialized fields, so the topics of discussion were far ranging. Not being a scientist, I often found myself in the position of explaining that “I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV,” and participating as best I could. At the time, there was a news story being passed around that touted Costa Rica’s 80%+ use of renewable energy sources, so I brought it up, and was surprised to find out that many of the scientists were not happy about the achievement.

In Costa Rica, the majority of their energy comes from conventional, large-scale hydroelectric power plants. Hydroelectric power generation has various environmental and social impacts depending on the size and method of production. In some cases, micro or small-scale hydropower production has the potential to provide clean energy with a small ecological and social footprint. However, in other cases, conventional large-scale hydropower production can devastate local ecosystems and can be as bad or worse for the environment than coal plants. One such method is to create artificial reservoirs from which water is released through a dam. This method allows more control over energy production, but is often highly destructive. The flood plains become filled with dead and rotting plant matter which release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, the migratory patterns of fish are disrupted, and buildups of silt can choke the oxygen out of the stream, causing dead zones.*

A number of the scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute had worked in Costa Rica and explained that the production of “renewable” energy had disrupted local ecosystems and wreaked havoc on plant and animal populations that they had previously studied. That was the first time I realized that when it comes to energy, going green does not necessarily equate to going clean.

Despite our varied concerns with large scale hydroelectric power production, Domini recognizes the need and immense value that electricity creates for society at large. When reviewing utilities that focus on hydroelectric power production, we evaluate the size, scale and location of the production, potential or ongoing controversies with the displacement of communities or indigenous peoples, ecosystem damage, uncertainties with the production of carbon and methane emissions, and other concerns among the wide array of environmental and societal risks that are associated with large-scale hydropower.

My intent in writing this piece was to remind readers to always look beyond the headlines. When I went to find the article that I had brought up in the cafeteria in Panama, this post’s origin story if you will, I found that there were plenty of articles out there in 2014 that talked about the ecological consequences of damming rivers, but I had just never seen them. Just because a headline is using the word “renewable” does not mean a project is without controversy. Ironically, I couldn’t find the original story. I guess good headlines go viral then die, while good articles are often left for dead but live forever. As we move towards greater and greater adoption of renewables, it is important to stay informed and understand which sources can bring us to a more sustainable future.

* Transforming tropical rivers: an environmental perspective on hydropower development in Costa Rica (Elizabeth P. Anderson, et al; Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems vol. 16, 2006)