Hydropower: Can it stop climate change?

Hydropower: Can it stop climate change?

Hydropower: Can it stop climate change?

The recent droughts in Colombia and Ecuador have significantly impacted the energy production from hydropower. Will renewable energy sources, such as cheap and low-carbon options, be able to prosper in a world that is becoming hotter and drier?

Since its inception over a century ago, hydropower has proven to be a dependable, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly energy source. It has emerged as a crucial contributor to clean energy, surpassing all other renewable sources in terms of electricity generation.

However, recent events in Ecuador and Colombia have underscored the vulnerability of hydropower to the impacts of climate change. The El Nino weather phenomenon has triggered a severe drought, causing water levels in hydropower reservoirs to plummet. As a result, both countries, heavily reliant on hydropower for their electricity needs, are facing significant challenges.

Reduced water levels compel Ecuador to declare a state of emergency and implement power cuts. In neighboring Colombia, the capital city has resorted to water rationing, and the country has suspended its electricity exports to Ecuador.

These developments serve as a stark reminder that despite its many advantages, hydropower is not immune to the consequences of climate change. As we strive to transition to a sustainable energy future, it is imperative to diversify our energy sources and invest in technologies that can withstand the uncertainties posed by a changing climate.

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Climate Change: A Growing Industry Concern

Hydropower: Can it stop climate change?

Climate change is a growing worry for the industry. Hydropower operates by capturing the movement of water passing through a turbine, which produces electricity through its rotation.

Matthew McCartney, an expert on sustainable water infrastructure at the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka, emphasized that hydropower relies on water. Therefore, a lack of water can render hydropower unusable, causing disruptions in energy production and straining energy systems.

The more frequent and severe droughts, as well as sudden floods that can damage dams, exacerbated by climate change, are now a significant concern for hydropower, McCartney noted.

Hydrologist Luz Adriana Cuartas from the Brazilian Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disaster explains how hydropower facilities adapt to weather variations by storing water during the rainy season for use during dry periods.

However, Cuartas pointed out that Colombia and Ecuador experienced soaring temperatures and reduced rainfall last year, making the regulation of hydropower more challenging. Simultaneously increased use of air conditioners and water taps has exacerbated the situation in the region, raising both energy and water demand.

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2023 Witnessed a record decline in Hydropower Generation

Hydropower: Can it stop climate change?

In 2023, there was a significant decrease in hydropower production, marking a historic event. This decline was not limited to Ecuador and Colombia alone. Despite being the largest renewable source of electricity worldwide and experiencing a 70% growth in the past two decades, hydropower faced a substantial drop in global output during the first half of 2023. Ember, an energy think tank based in the United Kingdom, reported these findings.

According to Ember’s research, the decline in hydroelectricity can be attributed to drought, which was likely worsened by the effects of climate change. This environmental factor resulted in an 8.5% reduction in hydropower production globally during the mentioned period.

China, known as the largest generator of hydroelectricity in the world, accounted for three-quarters of this global decline. The country faced severe droughts in 2022 and 2023, leading to the depletion of rivers and reservoirs. Consequently, China experienced power shortages and had to implement electricity rationing measures.

Furthermore, a study conducted in 2022 revealed that slightly over a quarter of all hydropower dams are located in regions projected to face medium to extreme water scarcity risks by 2050. This highlights the vulnerability of hydropower to future water scarcity challenges.

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Relying Too Much Raises Climate Risks

Over-reliance on hydropower increases vulnerability to climate change impacts, according to Giacomo Falchetta, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

In Africa, where Falchetta’s research has focused, countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zambia heavily rely on hydropower for over 80% of their electricity generation. Unfortunately, these countries also face the challenge of severe droughts.

In addition to their high dependence on hydropower, these countries have limited capacity for alternative power generation and lack the necessary infrastructure to import power.

Falchetta suggests that the solution for countries like Ghana and Kenya is to diversify their power sources by incorporating other renewable technologies, such as wind and solar, into their energy mix. This will help them move away from relying heavily on hydropower and create a more diverse portfolio of technologies.

McCartney points out that innovations like placing floating solar panels on the water’s surface in hydropower plants, which countries like China and Brazil are exploring, have significant potential. By covering just a small percentage of the reservoir, these panels can generate as much electricity as hydropower alone.

Lei Xie, the energy policy manager at the International Hydropower Association (IHA), emphasizes that countries like Colombia and Ecuador, which heavily rely on hydropower, should aim for an optimum mix of renewables. According to Xie, water, wind, and sun can all contribute to getting the job done.

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The Journey to Achieving Net-Zero Emissions

Hydropower: Can it stop climate change?

The path towards achieving net-zero emissions is a complex one. Despite the potential climate risks associated with hydropower, many still believe that it has a crucial role to play in decarbonizing the global economy.

According to Falchetta, hydropower is a technology that will continue to expand because it offers the advantage of providing affordable power on a large scale. However, instead of relying solely on massive dams like in the past, it would be beneficial to focus on building more medium-scale plants. This approach would help mitigate the climate risks associated with relying too heavily on a single infrastructure project.

While the International Energy Agency predicts that wind and solar power will eventually surpass hydropower, they acknowledge that it will remain the world’s largest source of renewable electricity generation until the 2030s. However, the agency also warns that a significant slowdown in industry growth in the coming years could jeopardize our net-zero ambitions.

To stay on track for limiting global temperature increases to 1.5C, hydropower capacity needs to double by 2050, as estimated by the International Renewable Energy Agency. Achieving this goal would require a substantial increase in investment, approximately $130 billion annually from now until 2050.

The Stabilizing Influence of Hydropower

While climate change poses challenges for hydropower, effective water management and integration with other renewable sources can enhance resilience to drought, according to McCartney.

In addition to this, hydropower plays a crucial role in ensuring stable electricity production, filling in the gaps when wind and solar energy are not available. McCartney explains, “Hydropower’s functions like a massive battery, capable of being turned on and off rapidly.” Hydropower plants are also known for their ability to adjust electricity output more swiftly compared to coal, nuclear, or natural gas plants.

McCartney further highlights the significance of pumped-storage hydropower, which involves pumping water uphill during off-peak hours and releasing it downhill during peak demand times. “These systems have minimal water consumption as they recycle water. While not completely immune to drought, they are more resilient than traditional hydropower projects.”

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