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Review of indicators for comparing environmental effects across energy sources

October 18, 2019

Robust, quantitative comparisons of environmental effects across energy sources can support development of energy planning strategies that meet growing demand while managing and minimizing undesirable effects on environmental resources. Multicriteria analyses of energy systems often use a suite of indicators to make such comparisons, but those indicators and their units of measure vary among studies. We reviewed 179 papers that described or applied energy indicators to compare environmental effects of different primary energy sources to answer four questions: (1) what environmental indicators have been used in multicriteria energy-source comparisons? (2) across studies, how consistently are these indicators used to quantify effects? (3) to what degree are different effects accounted for across energy sources and locations? and (4) how comprehensive are indicators in terms of assessing known environmental effects? For reviewed studies, we quantified the number of unique indicators and the diversity of indicators used to measure different effects. We also recorded the specific measurement units applied to quantify each indicator, the energy sources evaluated, and the continent where each study was conducted. While we found that many environmental effects of energy development have been analyzed across multiple sources, indicators were frequently measured, interpreted, and applied in ways that are not directly comparable, and some known environmental effects were infrequently assessed. We also found an emphasis on applying indicators to renewable energy sources; assessing current and potential energy sources, both renewable and nonrenewable, would greatly clarify the full suite of tradeoffs among sources and can inform energy development strategies that minimize adverse environmental effects. Overall, our review indicated that making comprehensive comparisons of the effects of energy development across sources may require efforts to standardize how effects are measured, synthesize effects literature into an open-source database, expand the range of environmental effects analyzed, and establish consistent frameworks for comparison.