Hydropower is not history, but rising risks mean the future of renewables is sun & wind, not water

Dec 8, 2019 · 7 min read

By Francesca Antonelli, Global Dams & Infrastructure Coordinator, WWF

Dam-made Lake Campotosto © Francesca Antonelli

As a child I used to count down the days until August, when my family would head up to Mascioni for our holidays. A tiny village in Italy’s Apennine mountains, Mascioni is here my father was born. It is also absolutely stunning — located within the Gran Sasso and Laga Mountains National Park on the edge of Lake Campotosto: a man-made lake that was created when hydropower came to Mascioni.

My grandmother used to tell me about the time before the lake, when Mascioni sat on a plateau that was home to subsistence farms and a flourishing peat bog business. But in the 1930s and 40s, three dams were built, flooding the plateau and sending most people streaming away down the hills to look for better luck (and jobs) elsewhere.

Like so many hydropower stories over the years, villagers in Mascioni objected to the dam development and tried to defend their territory. During one protest, a few of the villagers were killed by the police. And like so many hydropower stories, the efforts and lives of local people were in vain: the protests were ignored and the dams were built. In Mascioni, this created the largest artificial lake in Europe at the time and a place of great beauty. But it also transformed the ecosystem and drove the community away so that it’s now home to just 20 villagers all year round.

Many people will feel this is a price worth paying for renewable power. And with a capacity of 530 MW, the project still generates enough electricity to cover the annual consumption of 200,000 families. But at what overall cost? While hydropower is increasingly seen as not green because of its social and environmental impacts, back when the Mascioni dams were built, hydropower was the renewable energy source. Sixty years had to pass before this started to change, when the World Commission on Dams shone a spotlight on the damage dams can cause to rivers, communities and nature.

Mega dams have major impacts on rivers, people & nature © Global Warming Images / WWF

I don’t know what Mascioni would look like if the lake were not there. But I can’t help but wonder about what was lost when the area ‘gained’ hydropower. Probably at that time it was the best choice — taking everything that was known then into account. But what if the decision were being taken today — as similar ones are being taken in so many places around the world? Would the authorities still choose hydropower? Or would Mascioni end up with a different destiny — with its original, lake-less plateau dotted with wind turbines and solar panels?

The likelihood is that hydropower would still be the initial choice since it remains the default option for decision-makers and that there would be another bitter battle between developers and communities. But today, communities have far more ammunition at their disposal then when my grandmother’s generation was fighting to preserve Mascioni. And there is a high chance that the authorities — after factoring in all the costs and impacts — would end up opting for other sustainable renewable energy sources instead.

Most importantly, money talks and the price of alternative, non-hydro renewable energy sources has plunged compared to the 30s/40s (indeed, compared to the 2000s!). While the cost of producing any renewable energy varies very much from place to place, there has been a sharp drop in the cost of solar and wind worldwide. According to a recent study by IRENA, solar photovoltaic costs in Dubai, Mexico, Chile, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia in 2016 and 2017 fell as low as US$0.03 per kWh. The same applies to onshore wind, which in in Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Mexico and Morocco gas tumbled as low as US$0.03/kWh. The same study reports that for hydropower plants commissioned in 2017 the average cost was around US$0.05 per kWh.

Solar farm in Argentina © Jason Houston / WWF-US

Secondly, the climate is changing and water-related risks are rising — including for hydropower. We are witnessing dramatic reductions in hydro-electricity production in many regions due to increasing reservoir-emptying droughts, which not only disrupt lives and economies but also encourage governments to look to fossil fuels to help fill the unexpected gap — thereby increasing their greenhouse gas emissions. And hydropower plants are being impacted worldwide:

Kariba dam, Zambezi river, Zambia / Zimbabwe: Finalized in 1959, it supplies 2,130 MW of electricity to Zambia and Zimbabwe. Incredibly low rainfall in 2018/2019 resulted in lower water levels and 73% less electricity than expected. In August 2019, the average energy cut was four hours per day in Zambia and the Ministry of Energy released a Ministerial statement to explain that the energy crisis was due to exceptionally low rainfall.

Koshi and Gandaki river basins, Nepal: 66 out of 81 hydropower projects developed by private investors are facing hydrological problems due to water levels that are either too low or too high, with 20 of them producing less electricity than predicted due to drought. The Nepal Electricity Authority is penalizing them as they cannot supply enough electricity to fulfil their contractual agreements, hampering the owners’ capacity to pay back the loans used to build the plants.

Mekong river basin, Cambodia: An acute drought started in March 2019 has led to frequent power breakdowns that are plaguing daily life and business. The Prime Minister made an official statement in November explaining that hydropower dams were running out of water and hydropower plants could generate only 184–687 MW, which is between 14% and 52% of the installed capacity.

Hoover dam, USA: Hydropower from the Hoover dam provides electricity to roughly 40 million people in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and northern Mexico but a prolonged dry spell has contributed to sizeable drops in production. In 2016, electricity generation decreased by 23%.

Spain: Between 2016 and 2017, hydropower generation fell by 50% in Spain and a recent analysis by the European Environmental Agency highlights that water availability is expected to decrease even further in southern Europe in future.

Droughts dry reservoirs cutting water supplies & hydropower © James Suter/Black Bean Productions/WWF-US

And finally, the Xayaburi dam, Laos. One of the most controversial mega dams in the world, Xayaburi is almost fully up-and-running. It is also the poster child for the third fundamental change in recent years: the growing recognition of the hidden costs of destructive, poorly planned hydropower to people and nature. Free flowing rivers — like the lower Mekong was — are not just pipes to carry water for drinking, irrigation and hydropower. They provide a diverse range of benefits, such as sustaining freshwater fisheries that feed millions, providing nutrients to fertilize farmlands, supplying sediment that keeps deltas above rising seas, and supporting extraordinary biodiversity. It is still too early to predict how climate change will impact its expected electricity production but its early days have not promising. A full trial run in October has been accused of contributing to historically low water levels downstream in the Mekong and fueled a discussion about competing water uses in an era of increasing water-related climate crises.

The social and environmental impacts of hydropower, along with the changing climate, should inform all decisions on energy planning. Hydropower is no longer as cheap and reliable as it once was. Nor is it green. There is still a role for low impact hydropower projects (such refurbishment, retrofitting and off-channel pump storage) to help the world achieve both its climate and energy goals but the evaluation of the best energy source for each context requires a new approach that factors in the three fundamental changes to the renewable energy equation — price, climate change, and the recognition of the impacts of hydropower on rivers, people and nature.

I am sure these three factors would be part of the debate over Mascioni’s future if it happened today. And I would be standing with the community calling on the authorities to opt for the best LowCx3 alternative energy sources — low cost, low carbon and low conflict with rivers and communities (as outlined in the WWF/TNC report, Connected & Flowing: a brighter renewable future for rivers, climate and people). In Mascioni’s case, it is unlikely that the best option today would be hydropower. I would wager that is the same in many parts of the world.

Let’s learn from history. Let’s not fragment any more free flowing rivers. Let’s factor in all the costs and trade-offs of hydropower — including the loss of diverse benefits of healthy rivers to people and nature — before coming to a conclusion. Let’s take a system wide approach, not just look at individual projects in isolation. And let’s promote sustainable renewable options, such as wind and solar.

Most importantly, let’s not make the same dam mistakes again — even if they do sometimes create lakes as beautiful as Campotosto.

It’s time to invest in sustainable renewable energy like wind and solar © Global Warming Images / WWF


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