Environmental regulations may have unintended consequences in energy production

February 4, 2019, Carnegie Mellon University

Many countries have passed environmental laws to preserve natural ecosystems. Although the regulations seem to have improved preservation efforts, they may have had unintended consequences in energy production, leading to more greenhouse gas emissions.

That's the conclusion of a new study by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University that appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

"This study is the first to suggest that environmental regulations focused only on preserving ecosystems appear to have encouraged to substitute dirtier fuels for hydropower in ," explains Edson Severnini, assistant professor of economics and at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College, the study's author.

"According to our estimates, on average, each megawatt of fossil fuel power-generating capacity added to the grid because of environmental constraints on hydropower development led to an increase in annual carbon dioxide emissions of about 1,400 tons."

Severnini examined the tradeoff in the United States from 1998 to 2014 between efforts to preserve ecosystems and greenhouse gas emissions. In his work, he used a simple general equilibrium model for the electric industry. According to the model, consumers value electricity, preservation of the ecosystem, and climate stability, but generating electricity damages the environment, through either construction of hydroelectric dams or greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes to climate change.

The study used two sources of data. The first is a 1990s report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy to determine the undeveloped potential hydropower resources in the United States. The report contains information on locations and potential capacity of all such resources, which allowed the author to compute the potential hydropower that cannot be developed due to regulations intended to preserve the wilderness and wildlife.

The second source of data is the Environmental Protection Agency's Emissions and Generation Resource Integrated Database, which features environmental characteristics for most electric power produced in the United States.

In all, Severnini's sample included 110 counties in 33 states.

The study suggests that while environmental constraints on hydropower may have preserved the wilderness and wildlife by restricting the development of hydroelectric projects, the restrictions led to more greenhouse gas emissions. In many cases, environmental regulations replaced hydropower (a renewable, relatively low-emitting source of energy) with conventional fossil-fuel power (which is highly polluting).

"Do environmental regulations aimed at preserving protect the environment?" Severnini asks. "The answer seems to be not necessarily. The findings of my study highlight the pernicious incentives of that are focused on only one type of power plant—in this case, hydroelectric dams—and points to the importance of an integrated regulatory framework that considers both ecosystem preservation and ."

Explore further: Study examines pros and cons of hydropower

More information: Edson Severnini et al, The unintended impact of ecosystem preservation on greenhouse gas emissions: Evidence from environmental constraints on hydropower development in the United States, PLOS ONE (2019). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0210483

Related Stories

Study examines pros and cons of hydropower

September 6, 2018

Hydropower can generate electricity without emitting greenhouse gases but can cause environmental and social harms, such as damaged wildlife habitat, impaired water quality, impeded fish migration, reduced sediment transport, ...

Droughts boost emissions as hydropower dries up

December 21, 2018

When hydropower runs low in a drought, western states tend to ramp up power generation—and emissions—from fossil fuels. According to a new study from Stanford University, droughts caused about 10 percent of the average ...

Recommended for you

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

February 20, 2019

Why do zebras have stripes? A study published in PLOS ONE today takes us another step closer to answering this puzzling question and to understanding how stripes actually work.

Correlated nucleons may solve 35-year-old mystery

February 20, 2019

A careful re-analysis of data taken at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has revealed a possible link between correlated protons and neutrons in the nucleus and a 35-year-old mystery. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.