Using the “Footprint” Approach to Examine the Potentials and Impacts of Renewable Energy Sources in the European Alps
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The expansion of renewable energies is regarded as a key way to mitigate global climate change and to ensure the provision of energy in the long term. However, conflicts between these goals and local nature conservation goals are likely to increase because of the additional space required for renewable energies. This is particularly true for mountainous areas with biodiversity-rich ecosystems. Little effort has been undertaken to systematically compare different renewable energy sources and to examine their environmental impacts using an interdisciplinary approach. This study adapted the concept of the “ecological footprint” to examine the impact on ecosystem services of land use changes involved in exploiting renewable energy sources. This innovative approach made it possible to assess and communicate the potentials of those energy sources in light of both space consumption and sustainability. The European Alps are an ideal test area because of their high energy potentials and biodiversity-rich ecosystems and the high demand for multiple ecosystem services. Our results demonstrate that energy consumption in the Alps could not be covered with the available renewable energy potentials, despite the utilization of large parts of the Alpine land area and the majority of larger rivers. Therefore, considerable effort must be invested in resolving conflicting priorities between expanding renewable energies and nature conservation, but also in realizing energy-saving measures. To this end, the approach presented here can support decision-making by revealing the energy potentials, space requirements, and environmental impacts of different renewable energy sources.