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It is widely recognised that the energy sector has a negative influence on the environment. All the processes involved in the whole energy chain (raw materials procurement, conversion to electricity and electricity use) generate environmental burdens that affect the atmosphere, the water, the soil and living organisms. Environmental burdens can be defined as everything producing an impact on the public, the environment, or the ecosystems. The most important burdens derived from the production and uses of energy are:

  • Greenhouse gases;
  • Particles and other pollutants released into the atmosphere;
  • Liquid wastes discharges on water and/or soil; and
  • Solid wastes.

However, not all the energy sources have the same negative environmental effects or natural resources depletion capability. Fossil fuel energies exhaust natural resources and are mostly responsible for environmental impacts. On the other hand, renewable energies in general, and wind energy in particular, produce significantly lower environmental impacts than conventional energies.

Ecosystems are extremely complex entities including all living organisms in an area (biotic factors) together with its physical environment (abiotic factors). Thus the specific impact of a substance on the various components of the ecosystem is particularly difficult to assess, as all potential relationships should be addressed. This is the role of impact assessments: the identification and quantification of the effects produced by pollutants or burdens on different elements of the ecosystem. It is important because only those impacts that can be quantified can be compared and reduced.

Results from an environmental impact assessment could be used to reduce the environmental impacts in energy systems cycles. Also, those results should allow the design of more sustainable energy technologies, and provide clear and consistent data in order to define more environmentally respectful national and international policies. For all these reasons, the use of suitable methodologies capable of quantifying in a clear and comparable way the environmental impacts becomes essential.

This chapter describes the LCA methodology for the emissions and environmental impacts assessment and, based on relevant European studies, shows the emissions and environmental impacts derived from electricity production from onshore and offshore wind farms throughout the whole life cycle. Also, the avoided emissions and environmental impacts occurred by wind electricity compared to the other fossil electricity generation technologies have been analysed.

The concept of life-cycle assessment


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