The Future of Hydropower


© Shutterstock

May 26, 2015 13:41 EDT

Given the strains climate change is putting on the planet’s limited resources, what role can hydropower play in the future?

The Three Gorges Dam in China is the largest hydroproject in the world. Spanning 2.4 kilometers across the Yangzee River in Hubei Province, the dam captures 84.7 terawatts per hour (TWh) annually. China is, in fact, the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity, generating 687 TWh in 2011, which accounts for 15% of China’s total electricity production. Hydropower actually makes up 6% of China’s total energy mix — more than both natural gas and nuclear power — and the Chinese government plans to increase its output to 325 gigawatts (GW) by 2015. For a country that is also the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, hydropower is a vital source of clean energy that can help Beijing combat the pervasive pollution that blankets many major Chinese urban centers.

China is one of the many countries eager to take advantage of their natural topography to tap a clean source of renewable energy. Across the globe, the use of hydropower is on the rise, growing by 4% over 2013, as renewable sources of energy are touted as the most environmentally responsible alternative to finite carbon emitting fossil fuels and a valuable tool in fighting climate change. The runoff produced by precipitation, rivers and other waterways around the world combine to create 16% of the world’s electricity every year, and more than 60 countries receive over half of their electricity through hydropower.

Norway is western Europe’s largest producer of both oil and natural gas, yet it receives 97% of its energy needs from hydropower. Energy-rich Canada, Brazil and Venezuela all receive over 50% of their electricity from hydropower. Given the growing global push toward renewable energy, what does the future of hydropower hold?


A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) starkly outlined the long-term economic, social and environmental costs the world will be forced to contend with if climate change is allowed to progress at its current rate. The report concluded that the effects of climate change will affect every facet of life if it is not proactively dealt with. These effects are before the increased demand for energy and subsequent increase in carbon emissions are taken into account. The United Nations (UN) estimates that the world’s population will consume 50% more energy by 2035.

Despite a growing need for an increase in sustainable energy, the energy landscape continues to be dominated by cheap fossil fuels, which accounted for 78.4% of the world’s energy consumption in 2012. Renewables, on the other hand, accounted for only 19% of the world’s energy needs in 2012 — hydropower making up only 3.7% of that.

© Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

The world saw $187 billion in investment in renewables 2012, and the UN reports that more than 70% of investment in renewable energy since 2000 comes from non-OECD countries. This comes on the heels of the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative that was launched by the UN in 2011 to try meet three objectives by 2030, one of which was to double the share of renewable energy globally. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) believes that with coordinated action, renewable energy can account for up to 36% of the global energy mix by 2030.

The increased application of renewable energy such as hydropower would simultaneously cut carbon emissions and reduce pollution whilst producing a renewable source of clean energy. The European Union (EU) has set targets for its members to meet 20% of their energy from renewables and to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020. Of new electricity generation in the EU, 72% was from renewables. The US Department of Energy has set its own targets to achieve 15% of the country’s electricity from hydropower by 2030 — it is currently 7%. Elsewhere around the world, countries are pledging to meet more and more of their energy needs through renewable energy sources.

As one of the most established and ready sources of renewable energy, the expertise and capability surrounding hydropower is easily disseminated. Given the fact there are still 1.2 billion people living without electricity, many countries could potentially take advantage of their natural landscape to produce a steady future flow of sustainable energy. One place where there is huge untapped potential is in Africa, where hydropower is already being used to supply electricity to large urban centers and 65% of the population lives in water basins where hydropower can be exploited.

Hydropower accounts for 74% of total renewable electricity generation. The International Energy Agency (IEA), an inter-governmental energy advisory organization, wants to see the output of hydroelectricity doubled globally by 2050. As mentioned, 16% of the world’s electricity is generated by hydropower, but the current capacity could be tripled if all available resources were harnessed to generate approximately 15,000 TWh a year. Just this year, the global output of hydroelectricity reached 1,000 GW for the first time ever, and policy support for taking advantage of untapped hydropower capacity continues to grow.

Liquid Problems

Hydropower may be a highly efficient renewable energy system, but there are also a number of impediments that prevent its continued application. One of the most glaring is the cost. These projects are capital intensive and an expensive luxury many countries in the developing world cannot afford, especially if it requires costly foreign borrowing. Rock extraction, construction and the additional costs of storage and connectivity to grids all create a hefty price tag.

The Three Gorges Dam, at $28 billion, was the most expensive hydroproject ever undertaken. Furthermore, researchers at the University of Oxford found that prices of large dam projects ran 57% over their initial estimate on average. Just to make the area around the Itumbiara Dam in Brazil ready for construction required 96% of the project’s initial budget. In Ethiopia, around 60% of the country’s annual budget is being used to construct the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. Given the high price tag, the financial rate of return on many projects can actually be negative.

Another issue related to hydropower is that oftentimes the dams and reservoirs used to tap the natural current of water diverts resources away from local communities. This can affect downstream irrigation capabilities and seriously hurt agrarian communities’ ability to meet their harvest goals. The social costs of hydroprojects can be enormous if they lead to displacement or endanger the livelihood of locals.

© Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

Tajikistan is currently the site of an ongoing water-related dispute with its neighbor Uzbekistan, over the proposed construction of the word’s tallest dam near the town of Rogun. The Rogun Dam, if built, is expected to double the country’s power generation capacity. However, the $6 billion price tag and opposition from downstream Uzbekistan, which receives much of its water from the Vakhsh River, have stalled the project. This is an instance of a transnational dispute where international bodies can be utilized to mediate the dispute. However, if this were an internal matter with an autocratic regime pushing through a controversial hydroproject, the victims would be left to suffer the consequences.

Environmental Impact

Hydropower can also have a negative environmental impact on the surrounding ecosystem, especially on fish migration and other species, such as birds affected by shifting wetlands. The quality of water can be negatively affected through pollution, and dams and reservoirs can lead to the erosion of river basins, which can subsequently affect the quality of soil needed for local agriculture to flourish. The government of Chile recently rejected the HidroAysen project, which would have been the largest energy project in its history, over environmental concerns.

This is especially troubling given that freshwater resources around the world are drying up due shifting precipitation patterns and increased usage due to population growth. Drier conditions and potential droughts caused by climate change will reduce the potential for power generation due to lower runoffs and lead to water scarcity.

Unfortunately, this will most likely happen in poorer countries that also lack the flexibility, funding or political will to tackle long-term alterations in their water systems. The work of Byman Hamududu of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology examined the projected changes in hydropower generation through 2050. He found that many of the largest depletions would occur in high-risk, tropical countries. Hydropower must, therefore, be employed as part of a balanced energy portfolio in the face of potential disruptions due to climate change.

It’s Hydroelectric

There may be a number of downsides to hydropower, but the environment points to the simple fact that it is a lesser evil than to allow carbon intensive finite fuels to continue to dominate energy portfolios. The potential damage of global climate change drastically outweighs the local consequences of hydropower.

As governments adopt policies to mitigate climate change, renewable sources of energy like hydropower will be key winners, especially if generous subsidies are extended to jump-start projects. If projects are extensively investigated before their implementation, many downsides of hydropower can be avoided. Innovations in technology and the wider adaptation of hydropower should make projects in the future more cost friendly.

Also, given that fossil fuels are finite, any future increase in the price of oil or natural gas would make renewable energy sources an even more attractive investment for governments and businesses around the world. More efficient turbines that can harness lower water levels can be applied to avoid the pitfalls associated with mega-dams or reduced run-offs. Fish-friendly dams have also been implemented incrementally to avoid damage to local fisheries.

Hydropower provides one of the most effective methods to achieve a renewable energy future. If it is adapted in a sustainable manner, it can be an environmentally responsible portion of any country’s energy supply mix.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Thomas Zsebok / Kirillov Alexey / Mauro Pezzotta / Shutterstock.com

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