The risk of relying on hydropower to reach climate goals

What’s happening? Over 100 NGOs have signed an open letter warning that 60% of the EU’s water bodies are not in good ecological condition and are so exploited that new hydropower projects can only offer a “small contribution to the energy production mix”. The letter was published prior to a European Parliament trialogue of REPowerEU, the EU’s plan to make the bloc independent from Russian fossil fuels by 2030. The NGOs said that relying on hydropower to increase renewable energy deployment is irresponsible. The letter noted that hydropower is reliant on steady water flows, but that water scarcity is already affecting 20% of the EU territory on average every year. (ESGInvestor)

 Why does this matter? Hydroelectric energy is a type of renewable energy that uses the natural flow of moving water to generate electricity – about 70% of the world’s renewable electricity is generated from hydropower.

The impact of hydropower on biodiversity – In the letter, the NGOs emphasised the destructive impact hydropower can have on freshwater ecosystems. A study has previously found that the fragmentation of rivers by dams is one of the main causes for the 84% drop in global freshwater species populations since 1970. Despite this, the study said that nearly 80% of planned dams are in areas with a high risk to freshwater biodiversity. In Europe, the expansion of hydropower is particularly risky since just 40% of surface water bodies are in good ecological condition, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).

REPowerEU resurrects projects – The EU’s REPowerEU plans have led to several member states announcing new hydropower projects. For instance, Romania has resurrected nine hydropower projects located in protected areas that had been put on hold.

The NGOs warned that there could be hundreds more hydropower projects that could be greenlighted and have therefore called for the exclusion of new hydropower plants from go-to areas – specific locations identified by member states that are suitable for renewable energy production.

The impact of climate change – The letter also discussed how changes in European precipitation patterns may put hydropower production at risk. A study published in 2022 warned that European hydropower projects are at risk of increasing floods and droughts due to climate change. The research found that 61% of hydropower dams worldwide will be in river basins that have a high risk of water scarcity, floods, or both by 2050. The study said that hydropower planners can reduce these climate risks by investing in nature-based solutions including the restoration of forests and wetlands to lower flood risks.

Hydropower accounts for about 10% of the EU’s electricity generation and the European nation with the largest installed hydropower capacity is Norway. Climate change is likely to lead to increased glacier melt in Nordic countries and the Alpine region. While this may lead to increased hydropower production in the short term due to increased stream flow, excessive water availability can also pressure hydropower storage capacities with the risk of power outages. This may also increase sediment transport which can gather in intake channels and reduce storage capacity and water flow. A recent study estimated that the world will lose about a quarter of its original dam storage capacity by mid-century due to sediment build-up.

Can carbon neutrality be reached without new hydropower? The NGOs believe so and are adamant that new hydropower development is not the solution to the climate and energy crisis and that the EU can achieve carbon neutrality without hydropower expansion. They cited a report from the European Environmental Bureau and the Climate Action Network which outlines a Paris Agreement-compatible energy scenario that could reduce GHG emissions by 65% by 2030 and reach a 100% renewable energy supply by 2040.

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