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Environmental Science

Environmental Systems and Technology

As alternative energy technologies such as wind, solar, and geothermal become increasingly important, EVS research enhances our understanding of the environmental impacts of these technologies through life cycle analyses.

The development of alternative energy technologies such as wind, solar, and geothermal is becoming increasingly important as the nation faces the interrelated challenges of oil dependency and the more localized effects of climate change. While alternative technologies vary in their scale and stage of development, one thing is clear: we need to understand and better characterize the environmental impacts of these technologies through life cycle analyses that track such impacts as the amount of water used per kilowatt-hour generated, carbon emissions, and materials needed for construction. Life cycle analyses help to prioritize research aimed at reducing these impacts and identifying potential challenges for large-scale deployment and growth.

Life Cycle and Water Consumption Analyses

As technological advances increase the feasibility of new energy resources (e.g., shale gas and enhanced geothermal systems), studies that evaluate factors affecting water consumption across the life cycle (and how they compare to conventional energy sources) are increasingly important to understanding their long-term sustainability, especially in areas experiencing water-related stress. We have conducted several such studies, focusing on the impacts of utility-scale technologies (and recovery methods like hydraulic fracturing) to water resources. These studies also consider regional water availability and the legal framework of water resources in the regions where new energy resources are likely to be developed.

The chemical composition of high-temperature geothermal fluids has important implications for both the operation and the potential impacts of geothermal power plants. For this reason, we have compiled a database (Argonne Geothermal Geochemical Database) illustrating the range of geochemical environments that may be encountered in geothermal systems; the database is available on DOE’s National Geothermal Data System website.

Technology Assessments

EVS researchers have prepared an environmental assessment for the Bureaus of Ocean Energy Management and Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BOEM/BSEE) to evaluate the impacts associated with fracturing and non-fracturing well stimulation treatments for enhancing oil and gas production on platforms that operate on the Pacific outer continental shelf. We continue to provide National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) support to these agencies in the areas of impact assessment and environmental stewardship.

We have also supported the BOEM/BSEE in their efforts to develop offshore renewable energy technologies (e.g., floating and fixed-bottom wind turbines and marine hydrokinetic technologies) on the outer continental shelf. This work evaluated the potential environmental impacts associated with alternative energy development 3 to 200 mi offshore in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific regions. It was also the basis for establishing policies and best management practices adopted as mitigation measures (through lease stipulations), providing a road map for developers during the permitting process.

High-Resolution Climate Modeling

EVS conducts high-resolution climate forecast modeling using the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model (at scales of 12 km and, more recently, 4 km) to improve accuracy in climate predictions (seasonal features and extreme weather events), especially in areas of complex geographical terrain. These high-resolution climate model datasets will help researchers, private industry (e.g., wind energy), and regional/city planners better understand and anticipate changes to local climates in the coming years.

Flooding and Stormwater Evaluations

We have performed flooding re-evaluations at several dozen power plant sites and hydrologic safety evaluations at new reactor sites for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Such evaluations focus on modeling local intense precipitation, stream and river flooding, dam failure, and coastal flooding. We also provide stormwater modeling evaluations (e.g., considering runoff potential, stormwater detention capacity) and develop stormwater management plans.

Research Highlights