Renewable Energy "Solutions:" Minimizing Disruptions to Local Ecosystems

Objective

In a selected renewable energy context, analyze actual and potential disruptions to local ecosystems, and develop a set of strategies that will minimize the harms and collectively offer a “least disruptive” configuration from an ecosystem-protection point of view. 

Background

Various renewable energy generation systems offer obvious advantages from the point of view of resource conservation, decreased air pollution, and climate change mitigation. That said, in their current state of development they can also present serious challenges from a strict ecosystem-preservation point of view. Wind turbines, for example, can be threats to migrating birds. And when placed offshore they generate underwater noise that can potentially disturb aquatic life. Installations of photovoltaic panels or solar thermal collectors take up considerable physical space, often in relatively undeveloped areas, hence potentially disrupt longstanding natural habitats in these areas. Both wind farms and solar installations typically require the construction of long transmission lines to connect renewable energy generating sources with user communities—transmission lines that can divide and disrupt delicate natural ecosystems. Hydroelectric dams create a variety of harmful environmental impacts. This project will ask students to select a renewable energy context—including but certainly not limited to the examples noted above. The first task will be to comprehensively research and analyze the potential ecosystem disruptions associated with the selected renewable energy generation system. Next, the team will research ways to mitigate these disruptions, and based on this research make recommendations as to one or more “least-disruptive” solutions from a long-term ecosystem-preservation point of view.

Suggested Approaches

(i) Selection of renewable energy context. Select a problem context that is compelling to team members, and which also offers an array of potential ecosystem complications. Questions of scope (specific geographic area, or multiple areas?) should be kept in mind, and decisions as to problem scope should be discussed and justified.

(ii) Analysis of ecosystem complications. Carry out comprehensive research and analysis of various actual or potential ecosystem disruptions in the given renewable energy context.

(iii) Mitigation strategies and least-disruptive configuration(s). Based on the foregoing research and analysis, devise a set of mitigation strategies and recommend an optimal—i.e., least-disruptive—way to configure the energy-production and transmission system from the long-term ecosystem-preservation point of view. Limit the analysis to technologies that are now available, or which can plausibly be seen as likely to be available soon. If possible, develop some general ideas and guidelines as to how one can optimize (and perhaps quantify?) the complex tradeoff between the ecosystem-positive features of the renewable energy source considered generally, and the ecosystem-negative features of the same in terms of impacts on specific natural environments.