Although electricity is a clean and relatively safe form of energy, the generation and transmission of electricity has environmental impacts. Nearly all types of electric power plants have an effect on the environment. Some power plants have a bigger effect 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 that govern the environmental impacts of electricity generation and transmission. The Clean Air Act regulates 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 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 fairly small. Most large power plants require land clearing to build the power plant. Some power plants may also require access roads, railroads, and pipelines for fuel delivery, electricity transmission lines, and cooling water supplies. Power plants that burn solid fuels may have areas to store the combustion ash.

Many power plants are large physical structures that alter the visual landscape. In general, the larger the structure, the more likely it is that the power plant will affect the visual landscape.

Fossil fuel, biomass, and waste burning power plants

In the United States, the energy sources for about 68% of total electricity generation in 2015 were: fossil fuels (mainly coal, oil, and natural gas), materials that come from plants (biomass), and municipal and industrial wastes. Emissions that result from 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 the greenhouse effect.1
  • SO2 causes acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in water. SO2 also worsens 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

Air pollution emission standards limit the amounts of some of the substances that power plants can release into the air. Power plants meet these standards in several ways:

  • Burning low sulfur content coal reduces SO2 emissions. Pretreating and processing coal can also reduce the level of undesirable compounds in combustion gases.
  • PM emission control devices that treat combustion gases before they exit the power plant include:
    • Bag-houses are large filters that trap particulates.
    • Electrostatic precipitators use electrically charged plates that attract and pull particulates out of the combustion gas.
    • Wet scrubbers use a liquid solution to remove PM from combustion gas.
  • Wet and dry scrubbers mix lime in the fuel (coal) or spray a lime solution into combustion gases to reduce SO2 emissions. Fluidized bed combustion also results in lower SO2 emissions.
  • NOx emissions controls include low NOx burners during the combustion phase or selective catalytic and non-catalytic converters during the post combustion phase.

Some power plants also produce liquid and solid wastes

Ash is the solid residue that results from burning solid fuels such as coal, biomass, and municipal solid waste. Bottom ash includes the largest particles that collect at the bottom of the combustion chamber. Fly ash is the smaller and lighter particulates that collect in air emission control devices. Fly ash is usually mixed with bottom ash. The resulting sludge, which contains all the hazardous materials that pollution control devices capture, may be put 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 sources of nearly 40% of total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

Nuclear power plants produce different kinds of waste

Nuclear power plants do not not produce greenhouse gases or PM, SO2, or NOx, 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 reactor operators can dispose of it as ordinary trash or to a level where they can send it to a low-level radioactive waste disposal site.
  • Spent (used) nuclear fuel assemblies are highly radioactive and reactor operators must initially store it in specially designed pools of water resembling large swimming pools. These pools cool the fuel and act as a radiation shield. Operators can also store spent nuclear fuel 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, the federal government has not approved any other places (repositories) for storing the waste.

Electric power lines and other distribution infrastructure also have a footprint

Electricity transmission lines and the distribution infrastructure that carries electricity from power plants to customers also have environmental impacts. 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 it is more expensive and may result in a greater landscape disturbance than overhead lines.

1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Climate Change Science