Accelerating Sustainable Hydropower Development Around the World

The hydropower industry has placed a keen focus on sustainability in recent years. “The San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower,” a landmark declaration issued on Sept. 24, 2021, by the hydropower sector at the conclusion of the 2021 World Hydropower Congress, is one example of the emphasis placed on sustainability. The fundamental principle stated in the document is: “Sustainable hydropower is a clean, green, modern and affordable solution to climate change. Going forward, the only acceptable hydropower is sustainable hydropower.”

I’ve previously written about some of the environmental impacts that have led people to rally against hydropower (see “The Hydropower Industry’s Sustainability Conundrum” in the March 2021 issue of POWER). However, the industry has addressed many of those issues in the San José Declaration.

The San José Declaration

Among the measures espoused in the San José Declaration, named in honor of the capital of Costa Rica, which hosted the 2021 World Hydropower Congress in partnership with Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), are that all river- and water-based infrastructure should deliver net-positive benefits to project-affected communities and the wider environment to merit construction and continued operation. It says non-powered dams should be assessed for potential retrofitting with hydropower capacity, while dams that no longer provide benefits to society, have safety issues that cannot be cost-effectively mitigated, or have disproportionate environmental impacts that cannot be effectively addressed, should be assessed for potential decommissioning.

Another key provision in the document is that new hydropower projects should not be allowed in World Heritage Sites. The World Heritage List was created through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Convention. The list includes “places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity,” and as such, have been inscribed on the list “to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.” There are 1,157 properties on the World Heritage List as of early August 2023.

The San José Declaration says there is no excuse for unsustainable hydropower development projects to go ahead today. “The preparation, implementation and operation of hydropower should be delivered in accordance with international good practice as defined by the Hydropower Sustainability Standard,” it says.

The Bali Statement

The World Hydropower Congress, which is organized by the International Hydropower Association (IHA) biannually, will be hosted this year in partnership with the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the state electricity provider PLN. It will take place Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. In anticipation of the event, the IHA is facilitating “a wide-ranging public consultation to identify the principles, commitments, and recommendations needed to supercharge sustainable hydropower’s contribution to the energy transition.” This work will culminate in “The Bali Statement on Powering Sustainable Growth,” expected to be issued at the conclusion of the gathering.

On July 27, IHA CEO Eddie Rich participated in a webinar to present a draft of the Bali Statement. The goal of the session was to field questions and gather feedback on the draft to ensure a wide range of stakeholder perspectives are considered in the final version. As presented, the fundamental principle in the draft document was: “Sustainable development requires reliable and affordable renewable energy. Water powered the industrial revolution of the past; water will power the sustainable growth of the future.”

While the key word in the San José Declaration was undoubtedly “sustainable,” and the IHA surely feels that’s still of utmost importance, the key word in the Bali Statement may be “development.” In his presentation, Rich said, “We really are focusing on some other aspects in this Congress, and particularly the role of hydropower in driving—empowering—sustainable growth. It’s part of water management. It’s part of affordable, modern, sustainable energy for all, but it’s also part of driving the economy.”

Rich noted that there is plenty of untapped hydropower potential. “Don’t let anyone ever tell us that there is not enough hydropower to power the future,” he stressed while showing a world map with 1,923 GW of remaining potential spread quite evenly around the globe. “[There’s] plenty to keep us on track for net-zero as long as we build it,” Rich said.

Hitting Targets

The difficulty comes in building it. According to the IHA’s 2023 World Hydropower Outlook report, issued in June, the scale of hydro deployment required to achieve net-zero goals by 2050 is quite large. The report says the International Energy Agency and International Renewable Energy Agency both estimate that the most cost-effective, achievable global net-zero energy system will require about twice as much hydropower by 2050 as there is today, that is, between 2,500 GW and 3,000 GW including pumped-storage hydropower. To get there, more than 45 GW/year must be deployed around the world. However, the project pipeline is well short of that figure. In fact, the IHA says there’s more than a 700-GW gap at present.

“The only country in the world which is really on track with hydropower development in line with net-zero targets is China,” Rich said. “They’ve built more than two-thirds of the world’s hydropower development in the last decade.”

The three recommendations the IHA offered to help accelerate progress are for governments to incentivize development through financial and market mechanisms, streamline permitting and licensing, and embed hydropower sustainability practices in regulations.

“We can’t imagine a route to net-zero without sustainable hydropower, and we need to remind the whole world of that,” said Rich. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.

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