Although electricity is a clean and relatively safe form of energy, there are environmental impacts associated with its production and transmission. Nearly all types of electric power plants have an effect on the environment, some more than others.

The two coal-fired power plants of the Crystal River North Steam Complex in Crystal River, Florida

The two coal-fired power plants of the Crystal River North steam complex in Crystal River, Florida

Source: Ebyabe, Wikimedia Commons author (GNU Free Documentation License) public domain)

Hunter Power Plant, a coal-fired power plant south of Castle Dale, Utah

Hunter Power Plant, a Coal-Fired Power Plant South of Castle Dale, Utah

Source: Tricia Simpson, Wikimedia Commons author (GNU Free Documentation License) (public domain)

The United States has laws to reduce the environmental impacts associated with electricity production and transmission. The Clean Air Act establishes regulations for the control of air pollutant emissions from most power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers the Clean Air Act and sets emissions standards for power plants through various programs like the Acid Rain Program. The Clean Air Act has helped to substantially reduce emissions of some of the major types of air pollutants in the United States.

The impact of power plants on the landscape

All power plants have a physical footprint (the location of the power plant). Some power plants are located inside, on, or next to an existing building, so the impact of the footprint is limited. Most large power plants require land clearing to locate the power plant. Some power plants may also require the construction of access roads, railroads, and pipelines for fuel delivery; electricity transmission lines; and cooling water supplies.

Power plants that burn solid fuels may have areas where the ash from combustion is stored.

Many power plants are large physical structures that alter the visual landscape. In general, the larger the area disturbed, the more likely it is for the power plant to affect the landscape.

Fossil fuel, biomass, and waste burning power plants

In the United States, fossil fuels (mainly coal, oil, and natural gas), materials that come from plants (biomass), and municipal and industrial wastes are used to generate most of the electricity people use (about 68% in 2014). Emissions that result from the combustion of these fuels include:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • Carbon monoxide (CO)
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Particulate matter (PM)
  • Heavy metals such as mercury

Nearly all combustion byproducts have negative impacts on the environment and human health:

  • CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and it contributes to global warming.1
  • SO2 causes acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in water. SO2 also exacerbates respiratory illnesses and heart diseases, particularly in children and the elderly.
  • NOx contribute to ground level ozone, which irritates and damages the lungs.
  • PM results in hazy conditions in cites and scenic areas, and coupled with ozone, contributes to asthma and chronic bronchitis, especially in children and the elderly. Very small, or fine PM is also believed to cause emphysema and lung cancer.
  • Heavy metals such as mercury are hazardous to human and animal health.

Power plants use air emission controls to limit their environment impact

Power plants are required to meet standards that limit the amounts of some of the substances they release into the air. There are different ways that power plants meet these standards:

  • Coal-fired power plants can burn coal that is low in sulfur content. Coal can also be pretreated and processed before use to reduce the level of undesirable compounds in combustion gases.
  • PM emissions are controlled by devices that clean combustion gases before they exit the power plant:
    • Bag-houses use large filters.
    • Electrostatic precipitators use charged plates.
    • Wet scrubbers use a liquid solution.
  • SO2 emissions are controlled by wet and dry scrubbers, which mix lime in the fuel (coal) or spray a lime solution into the combustion gases. Fluidized bed combustion can also be used to control SO2.
  • NOx emissions can be controlled by low NOx burners during the combustion phase or by selective catalytic and non-catalytic converters during the post combustion phase.

Some power plants also produce liquid and solid wastes

The solid residue that results from burning solid fuels such as coal, biomass, and municipal solid waste is called ash. The largest particles collect at the bottom of the combustion chamber (bottom ash) and are removed and quenched with water. Smaller and lighter particulates (fly ash) are collected in air emission control devices, and are usually mixed with the bottom ash. The resulting sludge, which contains all the hazardous materials that were captured by the pollution control devices, may be stored in retention ponds, sent to landfills, or sold for use in making concrete blocks or asphalt. Many coal-fired power plants have large sludge ponds. Several of these ponds have burst and caused extensive damage and pollution downstream.

Most power plants produce greenhouse gases

Electricity generation is one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Power plants that burn fossil fuels or materials made from fossil fuels, and some geothermal power plants, are the source of about 40% of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Nuclear power plants produce different kinds of waste

Nuclear power plants are not a source of greenhouse gases or other hazardous air emissions, but they do produce two kinds of radioactive waste:

  • Low-level radioactive waste is stored at nuclear power plants until the radioactivity in the waste decays to a level where it is allowed to be disposed of as ordinary trash, or a level where it can be sent to a low-level radioactive waste disposal site.
  • Spent (used) nuclear fuel assemblies are highly radioactive and must initially be stored in specially designed pools resembling large swimming pools that cool the fuel and act as a radiation shield. Spent nuclear fuel may also be stored in specially designed dry storage containers. An increasing number of reactor operators now store older spent nuclear fuel in dry storage facilities using special outdoor concrete or steel containers with air cooling. All commercial nuclear power plants store spent nuclear fuel assemblies at the plant because, at this time, there are no other places (repositories) for storing the waste that have been approved by the federal government.

Electric power lines and other distribution infrastructure also has a footprint

There are also environmental impacts associated with distribution infrastructure and power transmission lines that carry electricity from power plants to customers. Most transmission lines are above ground on large towers. The towers and lines alter the visual landscape, especially when they pass through natural areas. Trees near the wires may be disturbed and may have to be continually managed to keep limbs from touching the wires. These activities can affect native plant populations and wildlife. Power lines can be placed underground, but this is more expensive and may result in a greater landscape disturbance than overhead lines.

1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Climate Change State of Knowledge

2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change