Energy Technologies and Unintended Consequences

In my recent post on biofuels, I highlighted some of the unintended consequences that biofuels development has or might bring about:

  • paradoxically increasing greenhouse gas emissions
  • distorting agricultural land use
  • reducing supply and increasing cost of human and animal food sources
  • necessitating increased use of fertilizers

It turns out that all energy technologies carry some baggage of unintended consequences. Here are some others.

Fossil fuels, the granddaddy of alternative energies:

  • greenhouse gas emissions and climate change
  • environmental degradation
  • geopolitical blackmail

Nuclear energy:

  • safety issues
  • disposal of radioactive waste
  • dispersal of weapons-related technology

Electric vehicles:

  • batteries may depend on access to scarce minerals (see “geopolitical blackmail” above)
  • Those minerals are primarily found in environmentally sensitive areas (see “environmental degradation” above)

Also see my post on “Is Lithium Better than Petroleum?

Carbon capture and sequestration:

We don’t really know, since it hasn’t been tried on a large scale. But some are worried about the consequences of storing massive quantities of carbon. Under what conditions does it present a safety or environmental risk?


  • Can release ultra-powerful greenhouse gases in the production process (See this article, for example.)

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs:

  • Contain toxic mercury that is not present in incandescent bulbs


This is far out. It refers to mad scientists’ plans to release particles into the atmosphere that would create a kind of sunshade to counteract global warming. The possible consequence here?

  • Diminishing the efficiency of photovoltaics

No Way to Avoid ’em

At the Aspen Environment Forum last month, a panel titled “Energy and the Law of Unintended Consequences”  examined this topic in some depth. There panel asserted that, given the seriousness of the global warming “there is no choice for humanity but to try out as many types of new technology as possible in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” But, said the experts, according to an account of the panel in the Aspen Times, there is “no way to avoid the potential for unintended consequences that can arise from a willingness to try new things, and can create problems as serious as the ones they solve.”

If you are interested in the idea that all technologies come with unintended consequences, you should have a look at Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Vintage). The book is from 1996, so may seem a bit dated, but the arguments are the same. There is also a good reading list of some of the fundamental arguments about this topic.

Have any observations about unintended consequences? I’d love to hear about them. Please leave a comment.

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Filed under biofuels, carbon, solar

2 responses to “Energy Technologies and Unintended Consequences

  1. Pingback: Unintended Consequences, Part II: Air vs. Water « Green Research

  2. Pingback: Unintended Consequences, Part III: Electricity vs. Water « Green Research™

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