Environmental and Health Impacts of Electricity Generation

In recent years, the generation of electricity has caused the world major environmental and health concerns. All forms of power generation have raised concerns ranging from pollution to aquatic wildlife disturbance, spread of disease, the aesthetics loss of natural scenery and increased risk of landslide. And with the ever increasing demand for electricity these impacts are likely to escalate in the coming years.

Hydro electric power generationCredit: http://ecoble.com/

 Making electricity alone contributes 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide emission. According toBirol (n.d) the world’s electricity demand is projected to double between 2010 and 2030, with an annual growth rate of 2.4%. This means that there will be more power stations and the burning of more fossil fuels.

The Chernobyl disaster in Russia that occurred on 26th April 1986 that left the city devastated even 20 years after the impact of the accident and The Three Gorges Dam represents cases where electricity has harmed the environment in the past and is threatening to inflict more damage in the nearest future. The Three Gorges Dam that sits on the Yangtze River- the world’s second largest river which has over 30 industrial cities along its coast. The pollution that has arisen from the estimated flow of one billion tonnes of sewage into the reservoir yearly is also causing slow water flow and disrupting the river’s natural cleaning mechanism. This will in turn cause the massive death of wildlife that depends on the river for survival. Aside endangering lives humans and fishes, archaeological experts say that vast collection of cliffs, waterfalls, caves and other cultural relics all of which play a roles that cannot be quantified in monetary terms in the environment, was lost during the construction of the dam.

Humanity is yet to develop less harmful techniques to solve the problems associated with electricity generation. Instead the same processes that had made the generation of electricity harmful to the environment in the past are being repeated over and over again and in some instances on a larger scale. For instance, the reliance on non-renewable sources of electricity generation has been cited as one of the contributors of greenhouse gases, yet the use of coal fired plant has increased. 

Given the huge demand for electricity it is impossible to run power stations without causing zero harm to the environment. However, we can minimize the harm it causes if some of the remediations suggest below are followed.

Carrying Out Effective Risk Analysis

To avert power disasters, engineers need to identify and mitigate all risk associated with technology use, quality and performance before embarking on power projects. Engineering uncertainty in the face of the unseen or the unforeseeable has ultimately led to some catastrophe. The safety of the environment and lives should be given a greater priority than what the project will do. Currently, in some countries regulatory authorities have left the responsibility of risk analysis to owners of power plants and consultants, who have being largely ineffective in their operation.  Hydrocoop (1999) suggests that the problem of risk analysis effectiveness is more of organisation and adaptation to size and to the circumstances of the main risks than the cost. Regulatory agencies need to be involved in risk analysis by offering services and advice to the owners, and possibly impose a minimum level of risk analysis.



Reducing Dependency on Fossil Fuel

            Generating electricity from fossil fuels so far has been associated with virtually all the hazards caused by power generation. And they currently contribute a massive 67% of the world’s power and release large quantities of Greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. This is an indication that cutting down the usage will drastically reduce the veracity of the environmental problems the society is contending with. One of the major ways of reducing dependency on fossil fuel is by using clean alternative forms of energy like wind power, solar cells, geothermal energy, hydroelectricity, and solar thermal energy. With these alternatives in full operation, it would be possible for countries to use less fossil fuel and so control greenhouse gas emission and other effects. 


Efficient Designs to Save Energy and Reduce Total Demand

While conscious efforts are being made to work out modalities that will ensure that there is less dependence on fossil- fuel powered plant, the development of techniques that cuts down our electricity demand in the face of rising population should be given priority. It has been predicted that with the expected future population growth, consumption growth per person, and reduction needed in GHG of 1.5, 3 and 2 respectively, the world would require a reduction in power consumption by the factor of nine to be sustainable (Src, nd). Teaching people simple personal techniques to save power may not be as effective as engineers designing good systems that conserve energy. The smart design adopted by engineers during the expansion of university of Regina (by approximately 10 times its original size) between 1994 and 2009 has made it possible for the University to cut down power consumption by 35 percent (UofR, nd). Similarly, if more of this kind of design is developed the demand for power will be lower in comparison to population growth.

Limiting the Effects of Human Error

Human error both during the design and operational phase of a power plant is one of the factors that make electricity generation dangerous. However, with the help of consulting Engineering and the possibility of being charged to court for building a defective design engineers have exercised more caution and have minimized human error during the design phase of a power plant. According to Chen-Wing, current error occurrence and consequence rates have the potential to become limiting factors to further improvements in plant operations and safety.  Design may reduce the possibilities for human error during operation, but only if human error can also be eliminated during all the other phases of the lifecycle.

 Some of the major ways of eliminating human error during operations are the replacement of error inducing design features(e.g., physical device separation, physicalguards, application of validity and rangechecking), Restructuring of task so the error prevalent behaviour is no longer performed (e.g., by information filtering, only the information needed for the task is provided) and Automate to change the role of human involvement in support of task performance.


 Proper maintenance  

Extensive preventive maintenance and testing that ensures all forms of degradation in power plants are identified and corrected should be carried out frequently. The international energy agency suggests that both electrical and mechanical maintenance are aimed at extending the life, maintaining the efficiency level and reducing the risk of sudden breakdown of power generating unit. Traditionally, power generating units have been scheduled for maintenance in periods to ensure that the demand of the system is fully met and the reliability of the system is maximized. However, it has being difficult to carry out offline maintenance because the demand for electricity keeps surging and power companies are striving to make as much profit as they can. There is a need to adopt a maintenance system that ensures that the power plants operate at optimal level at all times.