Renewable energy is usually seen as radically new and pure harnessing of earth’s elemental forces. But one renewable energy has always stood apart in history, politics, and market share. Hydropower has millennia of history, longer than coal’s, though hydroelectricity did come after coal-powered electricity.
Hydroelectricity has been politically and financially separated from renewable technologies. In 1993, the World Energy Council’s alternate fuels only listed nuclear, biomass, and hydro energies. With biomass and nuclear energies losing popularity while others fight for footholds, hydroelectricity stands unique.
In the USA, though renewable energy is a politically colored, hydroelectricity is not. Jay Faison, conservative donor and businessman, says Pres. Obama could “change the clean energy debate.” How? With proposals Republicans see as more neutral, like hydroelectricity.
If you want an established, big business energy that’s not fossil fuel, hydroelectricity is it. It provides 16% of the world’s energy and is considered essential in many countries.
China, Brazil, Canada, Russia, and America have the greatest hydropower capacity, China highest of all. But it is also seen as a possible middle way to poorer countries’ development-versus-environment conundrum. World Bank Pres. Jim Yong Kim sees it as resolution to “the tension between economic development and…tam[ing] carbon use.”
However, the World Bank takes a risk putting this forward again after the 1990s failure. Sierra Club spokesman Justin Guay warns, “There needs to be a clear shift from large, centralized projects.” While centralized, symbolic dams may be just what countries want, the effects can be dire.
Dams are on the bank notes of countries like Mozambique, Kyrgyzstan, and Sri Lanka. The Amazon, Congo, and Mekong river basins are seen as rich frontiers for hydropower. In 2015, India did not outright reject any proposed hydroelectricity projects.
Unfortunately, federal governments can overlook damages both in greenhouse gases and to localities. For example, Colombia’s government has continued to support El Quimbo Dam’s operation despite environmental damage. It was shut down in December—now reopened provisionally—for failing to remove reservoir biomass.
Reservoir biomass is a source of the greenhouse gas methane just like livestock and landfills. Filling reservoirs inevitably destroys habitat, creating the biomass as well as damaging biodiversity and fisheries. Such environmental costs aren’t well studied, but people are asking, Is hydroelectricity even green energy?
Then there is the human impact, with locals getting displaced and leapfrogged by profits. Everything from fishing to living space can be affected. China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s most productive dam, spent $26 billion on environmental offset.
Then there is the question whether it’s sustainable. With climate change—which dams may boost—water flow will become rarer and more erratic. Bhutan, India, and other areas are concerned with reduced capacity.
It is possible that dams or dam systems could help manage freshwater. Generally, hydroelectricity is seen as a good backup system for other types of renewable energy. Or they could spread energy by storage support with pumped storage hydropower.
Hydroelectricity investing countries need to know, is hydroelectricity salvageable in the world to come? Yes, say International Rivers, if there is more research and dams are smaller and installed considerately. With humility and willingness to research, hydroelectricity may ripen green yet.