Hydropower has been sidelined in major economic recovery packages and mostly excluded from the list of favored technologies in the carbon neutrality push. The International Renewable Energy Agency and the International Hydropower Association launched a campaign for sustainable hydropower, highlighting the sector’s importance for energy storage, balancing and the power system’s flexibility.
Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Fatih Birol supported the agreement between the International Renewable Energy Agency and the International Hydropower Association to help accelerate the development, financing and deployment of sustainable hydropower. IRENA and IHA said the initiative is aimed at “better rewarding hydropower for the clean storage and flexibility services it provides to the energy system.”
Hydropower is the world’s largest source of renewable energy, contributing over half of global renewable energy installed capacity and directly employing around two million people, the international organization and the industry group stressed.
IRENA estimated an additional 850 GW of hydropower is required by 2050 to remain on track with the provisions of the Paris Agreement. According to IHA’s data, it would lift global capacity by 65%. IRENA recommends a 150% increase in sustainable hydropower investments through 2030 to USD 55 billion per year.
Other renewable energy sectors may be more successful in lobbying
“We… don’t do our pedagogical work as good as we should be doing or the other technologies have better lobbying efforts. Trillions of dollars of money is injected in economies in the context of economic recovery packages. I see that some countries are already putting incentives support for hydropower. This is very good news but we want to see more,” Birol stated.
IEA’s Birol: Economic recovery won’t be sustainable if governments don’t step in to support renewables and energy efficiency
Governments must back renewables and as energy efficiency measures if they wish to make the rebound sustainable, he added. “Hydropower is our forgotten workhorse,” in the words of IEA’s head.
The agency believes the energy transition will not happen if everything is left to markets alone, Birol asserted. “There is a need to provide incentives from the governments’ side in order to have a clean energy transition which is secure and affordable at the same time. Without a value, without remuneration, we will not see major developments happening,” he said and underscored that capital isn’t fueling the energy transition in the developing world as much as it needs to.
Sustainable hydropower standards fall short of overcoming bad reputation
Birol praised IHA for its work on a sustainability standard in hydropower: the environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) code of practice and the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.
Small hydropower gave the overall technology a bad name in the Western Balkans over the last several years
However, very few investors implemented them in the past decade. At the same time, environmental standards in many parts of the planet are becoming stricter and the awareness of the risks for habitats is rising. Numerous conflicts erupted between investors and the local population affected by the construction of hydropower plants while environmentalists are gathering international support and pressing authorities to make the projects comply with the law.
For instance, small hydropower gave the overall technology a bad name in the Western Balkans over the last several years, as wild rivers have been devastated and construction works on water streams threaten the way of life of villagers in remote and poor areas.
Dominant factor in power storage
IHA’s Chief Executive Officer Eddie Rich stressed hydropower provides 96% of all energy storage, in the form of pumped storage, but that it doesn’t create the same excitement or attract the same investment in research and development as wind, solar, hydrogen and lithium batteries.
“Despite what many of us consider to be compelling evidence of its central role in providing clean energy and supporting variable renewables, there is no inevitability of hydropower being part of that journey. The green stimulus packages are heavily focused on wind and solar. Hydropower is rarely listed alongside wind and solar as a major point of the energy transition. Investment in the sector is rarely financially enabled and some countries don’t even recognize all hydropower is renewable,” he said.
The flexibility and balancing services enabled by hydropower open the way for the deployment of variable forms of green electricity, IRENA’s Director-General Francesco La Camera emphasized. “When we talk about achieving carbon neutrality or 100% renewables, it is not by chance that the countries that are very close or very advanced to this objective are the countries with hydropower,” he pointed out.