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    Tuesday, November 18, 2014


    Integrated life-cycle assessment of electricity-supply scenarios confirms global environmental benefit of low-carbon technologies

    Edgar G. Hertwicha, et. al., September 3, 2014 ()

    Decarbonization of electricity generation can support climate-change mitigation and presents an opportunity to address pollution resulting from fossil-fuel combustion. Generally, renewable technologies require higher initial investments in infrastructure than fossil-based power systems. To assess the tradeoffs of increased up-front emissions and reduced operational emissions, we present, to our knowledge, the first global, integrated life-cycle assessment (LCA) of long-term, wide-scale implementation of electricity generation from renewable sources (i.e., photovoltaic and solar thermal, wind, and hydropower) and of carbon dioxide capture and storage for fossil power generation. We compare emissions causing particulate matter exposure, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and climate change for the climate-change-mitigation (BLUE Map) and business-as-usual (Baseline) scenarios of the International Energy Agency up to 2050. We use a vintage stock model to conduct an LCA of newly installed capacity year-by-year for each region, thus accounting for changes in the energy mix used to manufacture future power plants. Under the Baseline scenario, emissions of air and water pollutants more than double whereas the low-carbon technologies introduced in the BLUE Map scenario allow a doubling of electricity supply while stabilizing or even reducing pollution. Material requirements per unit generation for low-carbon technologies can be higher than for conventional fossil generation: 11–40 times more copper for photovoltaic systems and 6–14 times more iron for wind power plants. However, only two years of current global copper and one year of iron production will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs in 2050.

    land use | climate-change mitigation | air pollution | multiregional input–output | CO2 capture and storage

    A shift toward low-carbon electricity sources has been shown to be an essential element of climate-change mitigation strategies (1, 2). Much research has focused on the efficacy of technologies to reduce climate impacts and on the financial costs of these technologies (2–4). Some life-cycle assessments (LCAs) of individual technologies suggest that, per unit generation, low-carbon power plants tend to require more materials than fossil-fueled plants and might thereby lead to the increase of some other environmental impacts (5, 6). However, little is known about the environmental implications of a widespread, global shift to a low-carbon electricity supply infrastructure. Would the material and construction requirements of such an infrastructure be large relative to current production capacities? Would the shift to low-carbon electricity systems increase or decrease other types of pollution? Energy-scenario models normally do not represent the manufacturing or material life cycle of energy technologies and are therefore not capable of answering such questions. LCAs typically address a single technology at a time. Comparative studies often focus on a single issue, such as selected pollutants (7), or the use of land (8) or metals (9, 10). They do not trace the interaction between different technologies. Existing comparative analyses are based on disparate, sometimes outdated literature data (7, 11, 12), which raises issues regarding differences in assumptions, system boundaries, and input data, and therefore the comparability and reliability of the results. Metaanalyses of LCAs address some of these challenges (13, 14), but, to be truly consistent, a comparison of technologies should be conducted within a single analytical structure, using the same background data for common processes shared among technologies, such as component materials and transportation. The benefits of integrating LCA with other modeling approaches, such as input–output analysis, energy-scenario modeling, and material-flow analysis have been suggested in recent reviews (7, 15).

    We analyze the environmental impacts and resource requirements of the wide-scale global deployment of different low-carbon electricity generation technologies as foreseen in one prominent climate-change mitigation scenario [the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) BLUE Map scenario], and we compare it with the IEA’s Baseline scenario (16). To do so, we developed an integrated hybrid LCA model that considers utilization of the selected energy technologies in the global production system and includes several efficiency improvements in the production system assumed in the BLUE Map scenario. This model can address the feedback of the changing electricity mix on the production of the energy technologies.

    We collected original life-cycle inventories for concentrating solar power (CSP), photovoltaic power (PV), wind power, hydropower, and gas- and coal-fired power plants with carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage (CCS) according to a common format, and we provide these inventories in SI Appendix. Bioenergy was excluded because an assessment would require a comprehensive assessment of the food system, which was beyond the scope of this work. Nuclear energy was excluded because we could not reconcile conflicting results of competing assessment approaches (17). To reflect the prospective nature of our inquiry, the modeling of technologies implemented in 2030 and 2050 also contains several assumptions regarding the improved production of aluminum, copper, nickel, iron and steel, metallurgical grade silicon, flat glass, zinc, and clinker (18). These improvements represent an optimistic-realistic development t in accordance with predictions and goals of the affected industries, as specified in ref. 18 and summarized in SI Appendix, Table S1. Technological progress in the electricity conversion technologies was represented through improved conversion efficiencies, load factors, and next-generation technology adoption to achieve the technology performance of the scenarios (see SI Appendix for details).

    Results has two parts. First, low-carbon technologies are compared with fossil electricity generation without CCS to quantify environmental cobenefits and tradeoffs relevant for long-term investment decisions in the power sector. This comparison reflects the current state-of-the-art technology performance for both low-carbon and fossil systems. We examine impacts in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, eutrophication, particulate-matter formation, and aquatic ecotoxicity resulting from pollutants emitted to air and water throughout the life cycle of each technology. We also compare the life-cycle use of key materials (namely aluminum, iron, copper, and cement), nonrenewable energy, and land for all investigated technologies per unit of electricity produced. SI Appendix contains a discussion of technology-specific results. To our knowledge, this analysis is the first to be based on a life-cycle inventory model that includes the feedback of the changing electricity mix and the effects of improvements in background technologies on the production of the energy technologies.

    In the second part of Results, we show the potential resource requirements and environmental impacts of the evaluated technologies within the BLUE Map scenario and compare these results with those of the Baseline scenario. Our modeling is based on the installation of new capacity and the utilization of this capacity such that it is consistent with the BLUE Map scenario. within the BLUE Map scenario and compare these results with those of the Baseline scenario. Our modeling is based on the installation of new capacity and the utilization of this capacity such that it is consistent with the BLUE Map associated with the BLUE Map scenario over time and compare them with the Baseline scenario. We then compare results to annual production levels of these materials. In Discussion, we examine issues related to the presented work, in particular the implication of life-cycle effects on the modeling of mitigation scenarios and limitations with respect to the grid integration of variable renewable supply.


    Technology Comparison per Unit Generation. Our comparative LCA indicates that renewable energy technologies have significantly lower pollution-related environmental impacts per unit of generation than state-of-the-art coal-fired power plants in all of the impact categories we consider (Fig. 1 and SI Appendix, Table S5). Modern natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants could also cause very little eutrophication, but they tend to lie between renewable technologies and coal power for climate change (Fig. 1A) and ecotoxicity (Fig. 1C). NGCC plants also have higher contributions of particulate matter exposure (Fig. 1B). The LCA finds that wind and solar power plants tend to require more bulk materials (namely, iron, copper, aluminum, and cement) than coal- and gas-based electricity per unit of generation (Fig. 1 G–J). For fossil fuel-based power systems, materials contribute a small fraction to total environmental impacts, corresponding to <1% of GHG emissions for systems without CCS and 2% for systems with CCS. For renewables, however, materials contribute e 20–50% of the total impacts, with CSP tower and offshore wind technologies showing the highest shares (SI Appendix, Fig. S1). However, the environmental impact of the bulk material requirements of renewable technologies (SI Appendix, Table S1) is still small in absolute terms compared with the impact of fuel production and combustion of fossil-based power plants (Fig. 1). CCS reduces CO2 emissions of fossil fuel-based power plants but increases life-cycle indicators for particulate matter, ecotoxicity, and eutrophication by 5–60% (Fig. 1 B–D). Both postcombustion and precombustion CCS require roughly double the materials of a fossil plant without CCS (Fig. 1 G–J). The carbon capture process itself requires energy and therefore reduces efficiency, explaining much of the increase in air pollution and material requirements per unit of generation.

    Habitat change is an important cause of biodiversity loss (19). Habitat change depends both on the project location and on the specific area requirement of the technology. For example, PV power may be produced in pristine natural areas (high impact on habitat) or on rooftops (low impact on habitat). A detailed assessment t of specific sites used for future power plants is beyond the scope of this global assessment. As an indicator of potential habitat change, we use the area of land occupied during the life cycle of each technology (Fig. 1E).

    High land-use requirements are associated with hydropower reservoirs, coal mines, and CSP and ground-mounted PV power plants. The lowest land use requirements are for NGCC plants, wind, and roof-mounted PV. We consider roof-mounted PV to have zero direct land use because the land is already in use as a building. For ground-mounted solar power, we consider the entire power plant because the modules or mirrors are so tightly spaced that agriculture and other uses are not feasible in the unoccupied areas. Considering only the space physically occupied by the installation, the area requirements decrease by a factor of 2–3 compared with the values in Fig. 1E (8). For direct land use associated with wind power, we consider only the area occupied by the wind turbine itself, access roads, and related installations. We do not include the land between installations because it can be used for other purposes such as agriculture or wilderness, with some restrictions (20). If an entire land-based wind park is considered, land use would be on the order of 50–200 square meter-year/MWh (m2 a/MWh) (8, 20), which is higher than other technologies. We do not account for the use of sea area by offshore wind turbines.

    Cumulative nonrenewable (fossil or nuclear) energy consumption n is of interest because it traces the input of a class of limited resources. The current technologies used in the production of renewable systems consume 0.1–0.25 kWh of non-renewable e energy for each kWh of electricity produced (Fig. 1F). The situation is different for fossil fuel-based systems, for which the cumulative energy consumption reflects the efficiency of power production and the energy costs of the fuel chain and, if applicable, the CCS system…Scenario Results…


    Previous assessments of life-cycle impacts of electricity-generation technologies have used static LCAs (7, 11–15). Technologies are thus analyzed side-by-side, assuming current production technologies. We present an assessment based on an integrated, scenario-based hybrid LCA model with global coverage through the integration of the life-cycle process description in a nine-region multiregional input–output model. Integration of the life-cycle model, in which new technologies become part of the electricity mix and thus the life cycle of the same and other new technologies, addresses the interaction among technologies. Adopting a vintage capital model, the life-cycle stages of individual power plants are explicitly in time, also a novelty compared with current LCA practice. This previously unidentified type of modeling approach thus provides the ability to model the role of various technologies in a collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive way. Only through this integration can the life-cycle emissions and resource use of energy scenarios be analyzed correctly. Further, we can assess the contributions of changes in the technology mix and improvements in the technology y itself to future reductions of environmental impacts, as demonstrated in ref. 24.

    The widespread utilization of variable sources such as solar and wind energy raises the question: what are the additional environmental costs of matching supply and demand? Grid-integration measures for variable supply, such as the stand-by operation of fossil fuel power plants, grid expansion, demand-response and energy storage (25–27), result in extra resource requirements and environmental impacts (28). The challenges of balancing supply and demand are not yet severe in the BLUE Map scenario, in which variable wind and solar technologies cover 24% of the total electricity production in 2050, but balancing response and energy storage (25–27), result in extra resource requirements and environmental impacts (28). The challenges of balancing supply and demand are not yet severe in the BLUE Map scenario, in which variable wind and solar technologies cover 24% of the total electricity production in 2050, but scenario, the capacity factor of fossil fuel-fired power plants without CCS is reduced from 40% in 2007 to 19% in 2050 for natural gas, and from 65% to 30% for coal for the same period, but IEA provides no information on emissions associated with spinning reserves, or ramp-up and ramp-down. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Western Wind and Solar Integration Study indicates that increased fossil power plant cycling from the integration of a similar share of variable renewables may result in only negligible increases in greenhouse gas emissions s compared with a scenario without renewables. It may also result in further reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions and increases in SO2 emissions equal to about 2–5% of the total emissions reduced by using renewables. In a study investigating an 80% emission reduction in California, electricity storage requirements become significant only at higher rates of renewable energy penetration (26). See SI Appendix for further information on grid integration of renewables. Additional research on different options for the system integration of renewables and its environmental impact is required to determine the share of renewables most desirable from an environmental perspective.

    Our analysis raises important questions. (i) What would similar analyses of other mitigation scenarios look like? Thousands of scenarios have been collected in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mitigation scenario analysis database (4). These scenarios use a combination of energy conservation, renewable and nuclear energy, and CCS. Our analysis suggests that an electricity supply system with a high share of wind energy, solar energy, and hydropower would lead to lower environmental impacts than a system with a high share of CCS. (ii) How can scenarios for a wider range of environmental impacts be routinely assessed? Endogenous treatment of equipment life cycles as considered here in energy-scenario models has not yet been achieved. Options are either to (a) include some simplified assessments in energy scenario models, using the unit-based results from our analysis in the scenario models, or to (b) conduct a postprocessing of scenario results in the manner done for this study. The advantage of option a is that life-cycle emissions could be considered in the scenario development, thus affecting the technology choice; the advantage of option b is the ability to include feedbacks and economy-wide effects in the calculation of life-cycle emissions. (iii) Will fundamental differences in energy systems such as those between mitigation and baseline scenarios lead to significant changes to the supply and demand for many products (e.g., fuels and raw materials)? It is clear that there will be effects on the supply and demand of goods both due to different energy policies (e.g., carbon prices) and because of differences in the demand and supply of resources (e.g., iron or coal) to the global economy. Such indirect effects were outside of the scope of this study, but they could be considered in a consequential analysis (29).


    Our analysis indicates that the large-scale implementation of wind, PV, and CSP has the potential to reduce pollution-related environmental impacts of electricity production, such as GHG emissions, freshwater ecotoxicity, eutrophication, and particulate-matter exposure. The pollution caused by higher material requirements of these technologies is small compared with the direct emissions of fossil fuel-fired power plants. Bulk material requirements appear manageable but not negligible compared with the current production rates for these materials. Copper is the only material covered in our analysis for which supply may be a concern…


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