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Week 17: Why is no one talking about hydropower?
In this issue: ▸ Can you hear the roar? ▸ A short history of hydropower ▸ The potential is huge ▸ The future of hydropower ▸ The pros and cons ▸ And much more...
I hope everyone is well and ready for a new round of ‘ESG on a Sunday’.
This week we continue our energy journey towards a more sustainable future for all (not just the few) and take a deep dive into hydropower.
Can you hear the roar?
As a child I was always fascinated by the sound of water passing through a hydropower plant on its way down to the river. It sounded like a stampede of horses, powerful, deep, and if you closed your eyes you could almost feel its volume on your skin.
As always there are pros and cons, and it’s not about right and wrong. But what is very, very surprising is that hydropower has more or less always been left out of the renewable energy media bonanza. We hear about solar, wind and biomass quite often. There is a zillion articles on storage, new batteries and new innovation.
But the roar of hydropower is somehow missing out. It is silent, too silent. After all, as you will see, this is a power source we really need in the transition towards a more sustainable future.
A very short history of hydropower
Throughout the history of humanity, water and use of water as a source of power generation has been crucial for the development of our societies. The power of water, tamed, used and transformed for the benefit of humans.
Humans have been harnessing water to perform work for thousands of years. The Greeks used water wheels for grinding wheat into flour more than 2,000 years ago. Besides grinding flour, the power of the water has been used to saw wood and power textile mills and manufacturing plants.
In the late 18th century hydraulic power provided the energy source needed for the start of the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-1770s, French engineer Bernard Forest de Bélidor published Architecture Hydraulique, which described vertical- and horizontal-axis hydraulic machines, and in 1771 Richard Arkwright’s combination of water power, the water frame, and continuous production played a significant part in the development of the factory system, with modern employment practices.
The potential is enormous
Today the technical potential for hydropower development around the world is much greater than the actual production: the percent of potential hydropower capacity that has not been developed is 71% in Europe, 75% in North America, 79% in South America, 95% in Africa, 95% in the Middle East, and 82% in Asia-Pacific.
This is significant if you think about transition we need to make.
Due to the political realities of new reservoirs in western countries, economic limitations in the third world and the lack of a transmission system in undeveloped areas, perhaps 25% of the remaining technically exploitable potential can be developed before 2050, with the bulk of that being in the Asia-Pacific area.
Some countries have already developed their hydropower potential and have very little room for growth: Switzerland for example produces 88% of its potential and Mexico 80%.
You can see the world’s biggest hydroelectric power plants here.
The future of hydropower
Today we have around 1,300 GW of installed hydropower capacity globally. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s Global Renewables Outlook 2020, this figure will need to grow by around 60 per cent by 2050 to help limit the rise in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
According to IRENA, such growth would help generate some 600,000 skilled jobs over the coming decade and would require an estimated investment of US$1.7 trillion. Hydropower is expected to remain the biggest source of renewable energy between 2019 and 2024.
The pros and cons of hydropower
So what is the issue? Why are we not building more hydropower?
On the pros side, hydropower is a clean and renewable energy source that pairs well with other renewable energy technologies, and in some cases can be used to meet peak electricity demand. On the cons side, hydropower installations adversely impact the physical environment around them, are often expensive to build, and there are limited places that are suitable for reservoirs and hydroelectric plants.
Unlike traditional fossil fuel energy sources, using water to generate electricity doesn’t release harmful pollutants into the air or water. While there are some (and in some parts of the world heavy) environmental considerations that come with building large hydropower facilities like dams and reservoirs, once operational, hydropower plants themselves don’t require burning any fossil fuels.
Additionally, hydroelectric plants don’t use up water as they operate, making hydropower a completely renewable electricity source. As the water cycle naturally runs, hydropower will always be a viable way to generate electricity. Wind power and solar energy rely on the natural availability of wind and sunlight; just like an energy storage system, at times of low wind or at night when the sun isn’t shining, hydropower provides electricity when solar and wind can’t, making them more economical and practical sources of electricity.
Cost is a significant parameter. Many hydropower plants are large infrastructure projects that involve building a dam, a reservoir, and power-generating turbines. It requires a significant monetary investment. While a large hydropower facility can often provide low-cost electricity for 50 to 100 years after being built, the upfront construction costs can be large. This, combined with the fact that suitable places for reservoirs are becoming rarer over time, means that large-scale hydropower plant construction costs may continue to rise.
A reliable power source, but impacted by climate change
Hydropower is a reliable energy source, but it is still ultimately controlled by weather and precipitation trends. Because most hydropower generation relies on river water, droughts that cause lower water flow impact hydroelectric generation capacity.
Month to month and year to year, the amount of water available for hydropower systems can vary, thus electricity production at a hydroelectric facility can also vary.
A study by researchers from IIASA and China investigated the impacts of different levels of global warming on hydropower potential and found that this type of electricity generation benefits more from a 1.5°C than a 2°C climate scenario.
While hydropower is a renewable energy source, there are some important environmental impacts that come along with building hydroelectric plants to be aware of. Most importantly, storage hydropower or pumped storage hydropower systems interrupt the natural flow of a river system. This leads to disrupted animal migration paths, issues with water quality, and human or wildlife displacement.
Environmental concerns about dams typically centre on their blockage of fish migrations or their upstream impacts, such as the inundation of habitats and the displacement of human communities. However, dams can cause serious downstream impacts as well. Although the public generally thinks of threats to aquatic organisms solely in terms of water quality, hydrological alteration – the modification of downstream water flow regimes caused by dams and infrastructure – is one of the primary causes of the degradation of freshwater ecosystems worldwide.
Unfortunately, hydropower’s global track record of managing environmental and social impacts and assuring equitable distribution of social benefits has been less than stellar. So the occasional generality thrown out by the most vigorous proponents, that hydro is 'environmentally friendly', rings hollow and calls for a more careful analysis.
Sustainable hydropower then?
No hydropower project is likely to be 100% sustainable. All projects must be viewed as more or less sustainable. The quest to improve their sustainability will most likely continue the next 50 years.
To address the environmental and social concerns and guide the pursuit of sustainability, several entities have developed policies that articulate ‘sustainable hydro power’, including Green Hydro in Switzerland and the Low Impact Hydropower Institute in the US, in addition to the guidance on sustainability presented in the World Commission on Dams report.
Recently, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) has developed both sustainability guidelines and a sustainability assessment protocol. Collectively, these documents describe specific measures for hydropower planning and operation that can be used to evaluate the sustainability of a hydro project or programme.
It is possible to aspire to a higher standard – hydropower that is carefully planned and operated so as to get as much energy benefit as possible within boundaries consistent with the protection of natural freshwater ecosystems and their valuable social benefits.
Some hydro schemes are better at this than others. Some hydropower projects can be considered sustainable, some cannot.
But one thing is quite clear: The roar of hydropower is and will be one of the key cornerstones for transforming humanity towards a more sustainable future.
IN OTHER NEWS…
You have a right to be protected from climate change!
In other news, a ground-breaking ruling in Germany’s supreme constitutional court has ruled that the government’s climate protection measures are insufficient to protect future generations, after a complaint brought by environmentalist groups.
The court said it was unconstitutional for emission reduction targets to have been postponed for so many years and stated that the law was not detailed enough about how reductions would happen. The judges ruled that young people’s “fundamental rights to a human future” were threatened and that the law in its current state jeopardised their freedom because the goals set were too focused on dates too far in the future.
It said that it was only possible to reduce the rise in average global temperatures to between 1.5°C and 2°C – as set out in the 2015 Paris agreement – with “more urgent and shorter term measures”.
Solar and wind can fulfill global energy 100 times
In an interesting report, Carbon Tracker concludes that solar and wind’s potential is far higher than that of fossil fuels and can meet global energy demand many times over, unlocking huge benefits for society.
The land required for solar panels alone to provide all global energy is 450,000 km2, 0.3% of the global land area of 149 million km2 – and less than the current land footprint of fossil fuel infrastructure.
Poor countries are the greatest potential beneficiaries of solar and wind. They have the largest ratio of solar and wind potential to energy demand – and stand to unlock huge domestic benefits.
Should it be called “natural gas” or “methane”?
How much does natural gas benefit from its name, which includes the word “natural”?
To answer this question, researchers at Yale conducted an experiment to investigate the public’s emotions and associations regarding the terms “natural gas” and “methane.”
This is a both wonderful and scary read. It is all about the narratives, and here you can see what it really means.
Why linking CEO pay to ESG is not all good…
April is proxy season. It’s a time when financial publications carry a mandatory story about how certain CEOs were paid unreal sums of money in the previous fiscal year. This year is no exception.
But the headlines seem to have missed two important trends: 1) the growing pressure to link CEO pay to ESG metrics; and 2) the initial set of companies that link CEO pay to ESG metrics may have done so to get capital providers to overlook the obvious link between pay and performance.
Is adding ESG to CEO pay a way to check a few boxes and keep some institutional investors happy for a while without getting them to focus too deeply into whether executive pay has actually delivered shareholder value? This is a provocative article, and it’s time well spent.
That will be all for this week. Next week we look at the deep and troubling waters of growing biomass industry…