Hydropower is the oldest and probably the most underrated renewable energy resource in the world. The earliest known reference is found in a Greek poem of 85 bc. At the end of 1999 hydropower provided 2650 TWh of electricity, 19% of total global output.1 Yet when renewable energy is discussed, hydropower barely earns a mention.
Part of the reason for this lies in the disapprobation that large hydropower has attracted over the past 10-15 years. Concern for the environmental effects of large projects which destroy wildlife habitats, displace indigenous peoples and upset sensitive downstream ecologies coupled with often heavy handed and insensitive planning and approval procedures have resulted in the image of hydropower becoming extremely tarnished.
Some of this criticism is deserved. Large hydropower projects have been built around the world without due account being taken of their effects. Schemes are often completed late and over budget. And when they are completed they sometimes do not function as intended.
This, however, is not the whole story. There are many hydropower projects that perform well. With proper planning, environmental effects can be mitigated. When accounted for properly, hydropower is one of the cheapest sources of electricity. And while the countries in Western Europe and North America have developed most of their best hydropower sites in a manner that attracts relatively little criticism today the developing world has an enormous hydropower potential which remains untapped and which, if developed sensitively, could provide a major improvement in the quality of life. Yet it is often western activists that would prevent the development of these resources.
The World Commission on Dams has addressed these problems in 'Dams and Development, a new framework for decision making'.2 This report proposes a complete reassessment of the criteria and methods used to determine whether a large hydropower project should be constructed. It lays out an approach to decision-making which takes account of all the environmental and human rights issues which critics have raised, an approach which should filter out bad projects but allow well-conceived projects to proceed.
Large dams, however, form only part of hydropower. Small hydropower, which is generally defined as projects with generating capacities below 10 MW, can also provide a valuable source of electricity. Small projects are often suited to remote regions where grid power is impossible to deliver.
They too can have detrimental environmental effects but well-designed schemes should have little or no impact.
While large projects have been banished from the renewable arena, small hydropower is still allowed through the door. This division is politically motivated and not particularly logical since both large and small hydropower are renewable sources of energy. If the World Commission on Dams proposals are implemented then perhaps the image of large hydropower can be rescued. But that it likely to take several years, at least.
Was this article helpful?