Comparative analysis of electricity generating technologies with regards to environmental burdens

  • Ioannis Papadopoulos

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


In the last couple of decades, there has been an increased awareness of the effects that electricity generation has on the environment through the emission of greenhouse gases and the depletion of natural resources. This realisation, coupled with an increased drive towards ensuring the sustainability of the energy supply system, has lead many, including the United Kingdom government to investigate the options for moving away from traditional fossil fuel-burning generation methods towards “lowcarbon”generators, such as renewables and nuclear power. Specifically, wind power, the more mature systems (with the exception of hydro power) of the available renewable energy supply, and nuclear power, a technology seen as producing large amounts of electricity with very few associated greenhouse emissions, have been promoted but also pitted against each other by analysts and policy makers.

This work aims to provide a balanced analysis of wind power and nuclear power with respect to their effects on the natural environment. As such, modeling has been undertaken of a Generation III+ nuclear reactor, an onshore wind farm located in southern Scotland and an offshore wind farm near the Thames estuary while environmental indicators have been created to permit the comparative assessment of these three electricity generation technologies, in a U.K. context. These indicators thus facilitate an assessment of the energy requirements, the associated greenhouse gas emissions, the natural resource requirements, as well as the displaced carbon dioxide emissions from operation of each power plant. A parametric analysis has also been conducted to show the range of likely variations in each indicator’s values.

The results of this research show that all three technologies demonstrate similar performance with respect to their energetic and environmental impacts. More specifically, the wind farms demonstrate better energy gain ratios than the nuclear power plant when they are credited for not depleting non-renewable fuel sources. The wind farms also are shown to pay back their energy investments faster than the nuclear power plant. On the other hand, the nuclear power plant is found to produce slightly lower greenhouse gas emissions than either onshore or offshore wind farms. With respect to the assessment of natural resource depletion, it is estimated that both wind farms need more land per unit of electricity produced than the nuclear power plant, but all three power plants permanently sequester similar amounts of water. The wind farms and the nuclear power plant are found to have similar performance with respect to their material requirements, while the calculation of the avoided emissions factors for all technologies are of similar orders of magnitude.

All results are shown to be highly sensitive to the assumptions made about the prospective lifecycles, and as such caution should be exercised when drawing conclusions about any comparative advantages. Nethertheless both technologies are clearly shown to have lower environmental impacts than traditional electricity generation technologies.
Date of Award1 Dec 2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorGeoff Hammond (Supervisor)


  • emissions
  • windpower
  • nuclear power
  • environmental impacts
  • net energy

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