The Environmental impact of Heat and Electricity Production

Climate and environment blog

In many countries, the consumption of oil has decreased. At the same time, it has also increased in many countries. A large part of this reduction in these countries is due to the fact that heating of homes and other premises today is primarily done with the help of electricity and biofuels, and that electricity generation is mainly done with nuclear power and hydropower.

These countries have thus implemented the part of the reduction in the use of fossil energy that remains to be implemented for large parts of the world.

In the production of electricity with different energy sources, environmental impact arises, for example in the form of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) and high-level nuclear fuel waste (the amount of radioactive uranium fuel burned).

Reduced consumption and lower sulfur content result in less environmental impact

Various types of air pollution from fossil fuels have declined significantly over the past decade. This is mainly due to the sharp reduction in the use of heating oils for heating purposes, but also because the oil companies today can supply heating oils with very low sulfur content.

Types of emissions

Despite a reduced need for oil-based heat and electricity production as well as new purification technologies, emissions in this sector affect our environment in the following ways:

Greenhouse gases are the term for a number of gases found naturally in the atmosphere. These include water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, Freon, and methane. They are called greenhouse gases because they absorb the heat radiation from the earth and thus prevent the radiation, which causes the air in the atmosphere to heat up.

It creates an average temperature of 15 degrees, which gives the possibility of life on earth, but if the amounts of greenhouse gases increase too much, it can cause the climate of the earth to become too hot.

Sulfur is part of many fuels and is converted into sulfur dioxide by combustion. In the air, the sulfur dioxide can react with water and oxygen and is converted to sulfuric acid. The acid eventually rains down and causes acidification of soils and watercourses.

Fossil fuels, not least coal, gasoline, diesel fuel, and heating oils all emit sulfur.

Nitrogen is emitted when burning fossil fuels. It can partly contribute to eutrophication in watercourses and partly to acidification in the form of nitric oxide which is converted to nitric acid. However, the catalytic purification has resulted in a sharp reduction in nitric oxide emissions.

Hydrocarbons are released into the air through incomplete combustion of fossil fuels or through evaporation from oil products. Hydrocarbons are harmful to humans and the environment in several ways, so it is important to handle the products in such a way that evaporation or incomplete combustion is prevented. Catalysts on both petrol and diesel cars significantly reduce emissions.

Particles are unburned residues in the exhaust gases that can be harmful to health.

Environmental cost before electricity is generated

Everything that is built requires energy. The production of the building material concrete causes carbon dioxide emissions and a power plant construction requires transport fueled by fossil fuels. It is usually expected that solar cells and wind power that generate renewable electricity have paid their “energy debt” from the manufacturing process in 6-24 months. Power plants powered by fossil fuels increase their environmental debt during their lifetime as they emit carbon dioxide and pollution.
In addition, the continuous extraction of coal, gas, and oil that is needed draws large amounts of energy, as does transportation to the power plants around the world. Emissions due to coal mining cause environmental problems such as large wounds in the landscape. Nuclear power does not emit any carbon dioxide or pollution during operation but is dependent on environmentally harmful uranium mining.

Impact of electricity production on the local environment

All power plants affect the local environment around them. This effect occurs in part directly because they take up space on the ground and thus displace animal and plant life, but also indirectly depending on the type of power.
Hydroelectric power stations affect the entire ecological system in the water system used. Many rivers are rebuilt to resemble a long line of lakes instead of rushing streams. This is negative for the plants and animals that have adapted to the life of the river.

The wind turbine’s spinning rotor blade kills birds and bats. People are also disturbed by the fact that they cause noise and change the landscape.

Nuclear power plants use water as cooling and release it into sea bays. There, the temperature increases, and the marine life changes.

Power plants fired with fossil fuels emit particles and toxic substances in the form of carbon and sulfur compounds. Such local pollution has caused and continues to cause great suffering to people nearby in the form of, for example, respiratory problems and cancer. This also affects wildlife and plant life.

Many Chinese cities are often embedded in air pollution consisting of coal-fired power plant particles. Studies have found that China burns more coal than the rest of the world together.


In the 1960s, researchers discovered that the soils were acidifying and that this process had begun to change the environment and knock out wildlife in entire lake systems. The cause was emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide from the power plants in Europe, which were powered by coal and oil. Emissions were transformed into, among other things, sulfuric acid in the air, causing acid rain.

Nuclear waste

Burned uranium from nuclear power plants accounts for a special type of environmental impact. The fuel is radioactive for 100,000 years, and this radioactivity must not come out because it is harmful to cells in both plants and animals. The uranium is therefore stored in tight containers. But how to safely store these containers for thousands of generations? In 50,000 years, they may be opened by people who think it is a treasure.

There is much evidence that nuclear fuel can be used again with the help of new nuclear power technology. Then the waste would only be radioactive for 100 years and not need the same type of final storage.

The climate crisis

The so-called greenhouse effect has been known for over 100 years. It was the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius who coined the term in a study from the 1890s, in which he predicted that the increasing combustion of coal and oil would make the climate on earth warmer. The background is that the carbon dioxide formed during combustion retains heat radiation that would otherwise have left the earth.

In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers began to make calculations that showed that the greenhouse effect was a fact and that the climate could be altered by the large fossil fuel supply. In the nuclear power debate, those who advocated more nuclear power referred to this research, but the public opinion was then more concerned about the risks of nuclear power than future climate change.

Subsequently, awareness of the risks of the greenhouse effect has gradually increased. In 1997, a large part of the world’s countries agreed that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced. The so-called Kyoto Protocol would make this possible, among other things, through emissions trading. In the 2010s, carbon dioxide emissions in Europe and North America decreased, but they also increased sharply in Asia and Africa, so the fact is that emissions are increasing and researchers have meanwhile become increasingly agree that climate change is a fact.

Electricity production is key

Electricity production in the world accounts for three-quarters of carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, more renewable electricity or electricity generation that generates less carbon dioxide is central to counteracting further global environmental impact through warming.

The remaining carbon dioxide emissions are mainly responsible for the transport sector, but these too can be reduced by more fossil-free electricity generation. One key to adjusting the vehicle fleet is electricity. Then it is required that the electricity that charges the batteries does not contribute to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The energy demand is increasing

The earth has now entered a new geological age that scientists call the Anthropocene (after the Greek word for man, anthroposis). This is because we humans have affected the globe to such an extent that the conditions for life are changing. The climate is warmer, natural environments give way to cities and cultivated land and species die out at a high rate.

To return is difficult in many ways. Quantities of people in Asia and Africa want the same prosperity as in the West and therefore increase the environmental impact, as well as fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions.
On a basic level, it is about energy. Man needs the energy to survive and build his communities. More and more people and more advanced societies require more and more energy.

Some believe that the way forward is for people to reduce their energy use by refraining from expanding their communities. Others believe that man must establish himself in space to gain more energy before the earth is destroyed. Everyone agrees that technology development is important in order for more energy to be extracted from renewable energy types.

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