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The Understand Energy Learning Hub is a cross-campus effort of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Energy, the Environment, and Justice

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Fast Facts About
Energy, the Environment, and Justice

Energy and the environment are inextricably linked. Delivery of energy services (what humans want) is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and our energy resource use affects water, land, and wildlife as well. All energy resources have environmental impacts, but some, namely fossil fuels, have more impacts than others.

The negative impacts of energy resource use disproportionately affect low income communities and communities of color in the US and globally. As our population grows and energy access increases, it is important to figure out how we will deliver energy services sustainably and in a way that addresses inequities in environmental impacts.


Global Population and Energy Use

Population Growth
(1950-2021)

⬆215% increase
(2.5 billion to 7.87 billion)

Energy Consumption Growth
(1950-2021)

⬆518% increase
(28,564 tWh to 176,431 tWh)


Energy Use is the Biggest Emitter of Greenhouse Gasses

Burning a hydrocarbon leads to carbon dioxide production

CXHY + O2CO2 + H2O

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Energy Use is the Primary Source of Air Pollution

Sulfur Oxides

Burning a hydrocarbon with contaminants:
S + O2SOx

>99%
from energy services

Nitrogen Oxides

More heat:
N2 + O2NOx

>99%
from energy services

Carbon Monoxide

Incomplete combustion:
CO2 + C → 2CO

92%
from energy services

Particulate Matter

Particles of solids or liquids that are in the air from combustion sites or due to chemical reactions in the air with other pollutants

85%
from energy services

Health Impacts of Air Pollution

Asthma, respiratory illness, cardiovascular risk, organ damage, mental health challenges

Deaths from Air Pollution*

World 🌎

7-9 million people / year

US 🇺🇲

200,000 people / year

Black people in the US are
3x
more likely to die from air pollution than other groups

*Almost all deaths are from exposure to Particulate Matter


Water Impacts from Energy Production

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  • Thermoelectric Power Plant Cooling: >97% of the water withdrawn is returned to its source (e.g., river, lake, ocean), but it is typically 20 ℉ hotter than when it was withdrawn, resulting in thermal pollution
  • Irrigation: 38% of the water withdrawn is returned to its source
  • Data is not currently available on how much of the water withdrawn is returned to its source for the other categories

Examples of Water Contamination Sources and Effects

Oil spills and coal ash → fresh water resource contamination and wildlife deaths
Fertilizer and pesticide runoff from biofuels → dead zones in the ocean


Land Impacts from Energy Production

Resource Life Cycle Land Requirements (m2/GWh/yr) Notes
Large Hydro

Total: 3,000 - 25,000

Fuel production: 0
Area: 3,000 - 25,000

  • Dual use for recreation, storage, and flood control
  • Severely impacts fish movement and river ecosystems
Wind

Total: 1,000 - 3,000
(Used area: 20 - 60)

Fuel production: 0
Area: 1,000 - 3,000

  • ~98% of wind energy farms can be used for other purposes such as agriculture
  • Impacts on birds and bats
Solar

Total: 160 - 550

Fuel production: 0
Area: 160 - 550

  • Dual use possible with rooftop solar
  • Large scale solar can lead to loss of habitat and soil compaction 
Coal

Total: 55 - 870

Fuel production: 50 - 840
Power plant area: 5 - 30

  • Land use change, environmental disturbance, and aquifer contamination from coal mining
Nuclear

Total: 120

Fuel production:

  • Mining and drilling: 45
  • Fuel disposal: 30

Power plant area: 45

  • Radioactive waste can contaminate the land
  • Land use change for mining uranium
Natural Gas

Total: 265

Fuel production:

  • Extraction: 75
  • Transmission-pipeline: 125
  • Underground storage: 60

Power plant area: 5

  • Habitat loss from pipelines and power plants
  • Land use change and permanent effects from drilling and production

Energy Justice

Inequality. Unequal access to opportunities. Two people standing under a tree that only dropped an apple to the person on the left side.
Equity. Custom tools that identify and address inequality. Two people on ladders picking apples from a tree that is lower on the left side. The person on the right side is on a higher ladder, which enables him to reach the fruit on the tree.
Equality? Evenly distributed tools and assistance. Two people on equal height ladders trying to pick apples from a tree that is lower on the left side.
Justice. Fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities. The tree is supported so that it is no longer leaning to the left side. Both people are on equal height ladders and can reach the fruit.
Image credit: lunchbreath, based on Shel Silverstein's Giving Tree for John Maeda's 2019 Design in Tech Report

Energy Justice

The goal of achieving equity in both the social and economic participation in the energy system, while also remediating social, economic, and health burdens on those historically harmed by the energy system

Sustainable Development

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”*

*Quoted definition from Our Common Future

Examples of Environmental Injustices

Both globally and within the US, people of color and disadvantaged communities are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of climate change and environmental infrastructure. Due to the intentional siting of highways, mining areas, and powerplants near these communities, pollution is more concentrated, temperatures are higher, and harmful waste is more present. Additionally, these communities often have reduced or no access to the energy services that infrastructure provides.

Impacts on Communities of Color

Black and Hispanic people in the US are exposed to over
1.5x
more pollution than is caused by their consumption

Impacts of Redlining*

Surface temperatures in the US are
36 ℉
hotter in areas that were previously redlined

Impacts on Native Populations

Superfund sites** have been built within 10 miles of
47%
of Native American reservations in the US, leading to excessive pollution exposure

Impacts of Global Demand for Minerals

While 69% of the world’s cobalt for renewable energy comes from the DRC, only
19%
of the population has access to electricity***

*The term “redlining” comes from maps drawn 85 years ago, partially on the basis of race, that were used by banks to discriminate and deny home loans to residents in low-income neighborhoods
** Superfund sites are locations polluted with hazardous or toxic materials. Superfund sites have been linked to adverse health effects including infant mortality, mental health, water and food-borne illness, and cancer
*** There have also been many human rights abuses, including forced eviction and physical assault, in order to expand mining sites


Drivers and Barriers to Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Energy Use

Drivers

  • Negative human health and wildlife impacts from air, land, and water pollution
  • Increased US government environmental regulations and clean energy policies
  • Global renewable energy resource growth driven by both competitive economics and supportive policies
  • Use of new technologies such as carbon capture and scrubbers help reduce pollution
  • Governments are acknowledging and committing to correct environmental injustice issues (e.g., Justice40 in the US)

Barriers

  • Polluting sources such as coal plants are still being constructed and used
  • Entrenched interest and dependence on fossil fuels
  • Continued global pushback on action taken for reducing emissions
  • Reliability concerns with renewables
  • Renewable energy sources have some negative environmental impacts that, although low relative to fossil fuels, must be managed

Updated October 2023

Before You Watch Our Lecture On
Energy, the Environment, and Justice

We assign videos and readings to our Stanford students as pre-work for each lecture to help contextualize the lecture content. We strongly encourage you to review the Essential videos below before watching our lecture on Energy, the Environment, and Justice. Explore the Optional and Useful screening tool based on your interest and available time. 

Essential

Optional and Useful

Our Lecture on
Energy, the Environment, and Justice

This is our Stanford University Understand Energy course lecture on energy, the environment, and justice. We strongly encourage you to watch the full lecture to understand the environmental impacts of the energy resources we use and how those impacts have been disproportionately borne by underserved communities. For a complete learning experience, we also encourage you to watch / read the videos and readings we assign to our students before watching the lecture.

Kirsten Stasio

Presented by: Kirsten Stasio, Adjunct Lecturer, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University; CEO, Nevada Clean Energy Fund (NCEF)
Recorded on: October 9, 2023   Duration: 34 minutes

Table of Contents

(Clicking on a link will take you to YouTube.)
00:00 Introduction & Why We Care
12:39 Environmental Impacts - Air
23:28 Environmental Impacts - Water
28:30 Environmental Impacts - Land
31:23 Environmental Impacts - Wildlife
33:12 Conclusions

Lecture slides available upon request.

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Additional Resources About
Energy, The Environment, and Justice

Non-Governmental Organizations