The global hydropower sector has seen an upsurge in development activity lately, with installed capacity growing by 27% since 2004 (Figure 2), a new report from the World Energy Council (WEC) suggests.
In 2013, hydropower made up 16.4% of global power supply, reaching 1,000 GW of total installed capacity, with 40 GW installed that year alone. However, an estimated 10,000 TWh/year of undeveloped potential remains for new development, according to the report, “Charting the Upsurge in Hydropower Development.”
Hydropower’s growth is pegged on its low-cost electricity supply. An important new driver for global development concerns its role as a flexible generation asset as well as an energy storage technology, says the report. Infrastructure for hydropower projects is also used for freshwater management, and projects with reservoir storage generally provide a variety of value-added uses. “Given the major investment required for hydropower, and the potential impact on local environments, politicians and the general public may be more inclined to support projects that offer multiple benefits beyond electricity,” it says.
In recent years, development has been concentrated in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. China has lately emerged as the world’s leader in installed hydropower capacity, with a 26% share in 2013, far more than Brazil’s 8.6%, 7.8% for the U.S., and 7.6% for Canada. China is expected to extend its lead with the massive new developments that are already operational or will come online this year, including the 13.9-GW Xiloudu project, the 6.4-GW Xiangjiaba project, and the 5.9-GW Nuozhadu project. China’s expected capacity could reach 350 GW by 2020, says the report.
According to the report, the five biggest hydropower plants in the world by capacity currently under construction are the 13.1-GW Baihetan project on China’s Jinsha River, expected to be completed in 2019; the 11-GW Belo Monte project on Brazil’s Xingu River, also on schedule for 2019; the 8.7-GW Wudongde in China that should come online by 2020; the 7.1-GW TaSang project in Myanmar, slated to begin operations in 2022; and the 6-GW Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia that is scheduled to begin operations in 2017.
Hydropower development in Europe and North America meanwhile consists of modernization, uprating, and conversion of existing hydropower facilities, it notes.
Among the sector’s mammoth hurdles, the report says, is that big developments are often controversial. Chile in 2014, for example, halted development of the 2.6-GW HidroAysen hydropower project in the Patagonia region, and the country is reportedly rethinking hydropower as a future primary energy supply.
Other challenges that could affect the sector’s future include a shortage of technical specialists across a variety of needed skill sets, project delays, water consumption from evaporation from reservoir surfaces, water storage capacities, and sedimentation. Then there are issues stemming from climate change and resilience. Brazil, which is facing its worst drought in 40 years, saw its reservoirs operate at only 16.1% of capacity on average at the end of 2014 and was forced to operate thermal plants to avoid blackouts.
The report also notes that a project’s greenhouse gas footprint is “an area of ongoing scientific research, and policy responses are still evolving as the state of knowledge progresses. There are concerns around the uncertainty in estimates of GHG emissions from reservoir systems, and that these impacts are often attributed to hydropower projects.”
—Sonal Patel, associate editor