Hydroelectric Power: the role of large hydro projects

 In Energy

Large hydro projects are a very important contributor when it comes to energy production.

In 2016 hydroelectric power reached 1,064 GW of installed capacity, generating 16.4% of the world’s electricity from all sources, and it could be argued that hydropower should be considered the leading renewable source for electricity generation globally, supplying 71% of all renewable electricity.

In the last few years there have been an increasing investments by governments, banks and private investors in large scale hydro projects and the BNEF estimates that large hydroelectric power projects of more than 50MW attracted around $67 billion between 2015 and 2016.

Hydroelectric Power large projects: Wudongde dam in China and Caculo Cabaca dam in Angola

In the last two years the biggest projects commissioned in the world have been the Wudongde dam in China – a project green light in 2015 for $15.3 billion and 10.2GW of power, and the 2.2GW Caculo Cabaca dam in Angola in 2016.

This project in particular, estimated at $4.5 billion, has been funded by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and a Consortium of lenders which agreed to provide $4.1 billion to the country’s Ministry of Energy and Water to meet the lion’s share of capital costs.

However, these figures are often not included in many reports on renewable energies as there are indeed sustainability or geopolitical concerns when looking at the some of these largest projects.

Hydroelectric Power large projects: how hard is to measure this kind of investments

Another reason that puts analysts in a difficult position when it comes to large hydro projects is how hard is to measure this kind of investments accurately especially for their extremely long timescale – usually over ten years from the beginning of construction to commissioning not including a substantial risk of delays.

Hydropower stations of all scales have certainly big a role to play when it comes to developing more renewable energy resources as, utilising the natural water cycle is indeed important source of renewable energy and climate change mitigation solution.

From a 1kW unit to a 1GW hydropower turbine, the technical processes of converting energy in water into clean and dispatchable electricity are exactly the same.

Hydroelectric Power large projects: direct impact on the environment

However, when looking at large hydroelectric power projects is always important to remember three main areas where installing a hydroelectric plant can have a direct impact on the environment:

  • Land use: Especially for large scale project involving the building of a big dam, the impact on the use of the surrounding land can be extremely significant.
  • Wildlife: Large scale hydroelectric can have a vast impact on wildlife, affecting habitats and ecosystems that need to be reestablished after construction.
  • Emissions: Hydroelectric plants are not entirely emission free. Small projects like run-of-the-river plants can emit between 0.01 and 0.03 pounds of CO2 per kWh while larger hydroelectric dams can produce up to 0.5 pounds per kWh.

Kokish River Hydroelectric Project

A good example of a sustainable project is the the Kokish River Hydroelectric Project a 45 MW run-of-river power plant, located on north-eastern Vancouver Island, Canada.

Throughout the project, great attention was dedicated on respecting the riverine environment, especially the valuable fish resources, while the project provided at same time economic diversification through job creation and offered economic growth to the local community of the ‘Namgis.

The debate around new large hydroelectric power projects

The reality of things is that there is big debate going on at the moment around the development of new large hydroelectric power projects, as criticism continues in some stakeholder groups still skeptic around the sustainability on this large projects and the environment and the local populations.

However it’s also true that properly developed and managed projects which actively involve local communities, ONGs and environmental agencies as consultants can be an extremely important resource for the future of suitable energies.

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