ELECTRICITY GENERATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT:EVOLUTION OF ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS

EVOLUTION OF ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS

Humans have always changed their surroundings. Some of those changes we no longer even recognize—for example, the clearing of forests to create Europe’s agricultural farmlands. No one now sees these fields as forests that once were. Similar changes elsewhere are more obviously detrimental to local or global conditions. Tropical rain forests grow in the poorest of soils. Clear them and the ground is of very little use. Not only that but the removal of forest cover can lead to erosion and flooding, as well as the loss of ground water. Most of these effects are negative.

Part of the problem is the ever-increasing size of the human population. Where native tribes could survive in the rain forests in Brazil, the encroachment of out- siders has led to their erosion. A similar effect is at work in power generation. When the demand for electricity was limited, the effect of the few power stations needed to supply that demand was small. But as demand has risen, so has the cumulative effect. Today that effect is of such a magnitude that it cannot be ignored.

Consumption of fossil fuels is the prime example. Consumption of coal has grown steadily since the Industrial Revolution. The first sign of trouble resulting from this practice was the ever-worsening pollution in some major cities. In London the word “smog” was invented at the beginning of the 20th century to describe the terrible clouds of fog and smoke that could remain for days. Yet it was only in the 1950s that legislation was finally introduced to control the burning of coal in the U.K. capital.

Consumption of coal still increased, but with the use of smokeless fuel in cities and tall stacks outside, problems associated with its combustion appeared to have been solved. Until, that is, it was discovered that forests in parts of north- ern Europe and North America were dying and lakes were becoming lifeless. During the 1980s the cause was identified: acid rain resulting from coal combustion. More legislation, aimed at controlling the emissions of acidic gases such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, was introduced.

Acid rain was dangerous but worse was to come. By the end of the 1980s scientists began to fear that the temperature on the surface of the Earth was grad- ually rising. This has the potential to change conditions everywhere. Was this a natural change or human-made? Scientists did not know.

As studies continued, evidence suggested that the effect was, in part at least, human-made. The rise in temperature followed a rise in the concentration of some gases in the atmosphere. Chief among these was carbon dioxide. One of the main sources of extra carbon dioxide was the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal.

If this is indeed the culprit, and the weight of evidence available makes it prudent to assume that it is, then consumption of fossil fuels must fall or measures must be introduced to remove and secure the carbon dioxide produced. Otherwise, the global temperature is likely to rise to a level that could cause disruption and destruction in many parts of the world. In the worst case it is possible to imagine some catastrophic change to global conditions. It has now become one of the main challenges for governments all over the world to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere without crippling their economies.

The way in which fossil fuels are used in power generation is gradually changing as a result of these discoveries and the legislation that has accompanied them. Other technologies also face challenges. Nuclear power is considered by some to be as threatening as fossil fuel combustion, though it has its advocates too. Hydropower has attracted bad publicity in recent years but should still have an important part to play in future power generation. Mean- while, there are individuals and groups prepared to go to almost any lengths to prevent the construction of wind farms, which they consider unsightly, and objections to solar power plants have started to be heard.

At the same time, electricity is vital to modern living. Therefore, unless the world is going to regress, technically, the supply of electricity must continue and grow. On that basis, compromises must be sought and technical solutions found that do not result in irrevocable damage. These are the challenges that the power industry faces, and with it the world.

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