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Hydro – a big future?

Hydroelectric plants generate about 17% of total world electricity and are the largest existing renewable source of electricity. However, many environmental/development organisations, including WWF, FoE, and Oxfam, while backing micro hydro, have opposed large hydro projects because of the large social and environmental impacts.

The social dislocation resulting from flooding areas for new reservoirs is an obvious issue, but there are also more subtle eco issues. For example a few years back the World Commission on Dams claimed that in some hot climates, biomass carried down stream was collected by the dam and can rot, generating methane, so that the net greenhouse emissions can be more than from a fossil plant of the same energy capacity. This effect is site specific, but its does indicate that in some locations hydro may not be quite such an attractive renewable source as some suggest.

Nevertheless, there is still a strong push m for more hydro. For example, The African Union (AU),The Union of Producers, Transporters and Distributors of Electric Power in Africa (UPDEA), The World Energy Council (WEC), The International Commission On Large Dams (ICOLD), The International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID), and The International Hydropower Association (IHA) have all recently agreed that hydro is an important answer for some if Africa’s major problems.

They note that ‘During the past century, hydropower has made an important contribution to development, as shown in the experience of developed countries, where most hydropower potential has been harnessed. In some developing countries, hydropower has contributed to poverty reduction and economic growth through regional development and to expansion of industry. In this regard, we note that two-thirds of economically viable hydropower potential is yet to be tapped and 90% of this potential is still available in developing countries. In Africa, less than 7% of hydropower potential has been developed’.

They say ‘We firmly believe that there is a need to develop hydropower that is economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. Regarding the environmental and social impact of hydropower, a number of lessons have been learnt from past experience. Governments, financing agencies and industry have developed policies, frameworks and guidelines for evaluation and mitigation of environmental and social impacts, and for addressing the concerns of vulnerable communities affected by hydropower development. Those guidelines must be adjusted to the relevant individual country context. We note that the key ingredients for successful resettlement include minimization of resettlement, commitment to the objectives of the resettlement by the developer, rigorous resettlement planning with full participation of affected communities, giving particular attention to vulnerable communities. The decision making process should incorporate the informed participation of the vulnerable communities and those negatively affected, who must in all circumstances derive sustainable benefits from the project. The costs of social and environmental mitigation measures and plans should be fully assessed and integrated in the total cost of the project’.

They point to giant potential projects like Grand Inga on the Congo river – 40 000 MW which could generate more energy than 280 TWh /year of exceptionally cheap electricity, at less than $ 0.01. For comparison diesel generators, widely used in Africa, costs from $ 0.15 to $ 0.30/kWh.

Certainly schemes like this have large potentials. The proposed £40bn Grand Inga hydro project could, its supporters say, double the amount of electricity available on the continent and jump start industrial development, bringing electricity to hundreds of million of people as well as exporting power to South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt, and even Europe and Israel. It would supply twice as much electricity as the world’s current largest dam, the Three Gorges in China.

However ,not everyone is so keen. The Guardian reported (21/4/08) that environmental groups and local people have warned that ‘it could bypass the most needy and end up as Africa’s most ruinous white elephant, consigning one of the poorest countries to mountainous debts’.

Grand Inga was proposed in the 1980s but never got beyond feasibility studies because of political turmoil in central Africa. Now there seem to be prospects for it to go ahead and be completed by 2022. The big change is that banks and private companies can earn high returns from the emerging global carbon offset market and, in some cases, from the Clean Development Mechanism credits.

Terri Hathaway, Africa campaigner with International Rivers, a watchdog group monitoring the Grand Inga project, said that ‘As it stands, the project’s electricity won’t reach even a fraction of the continent’s 500 million people not yet connected to the grid. Building a distribution network that would actually light up Africa would increase the project’s cost exponentially. It would be very different if rural energy received the kind of commitment and attention now being lavished on Inga.’

While it is clear that hydro has many attractions and that Africa needs power, there are also clearly counterviews about whether hydro, especially large hydro, is the best bet. Large projects are expensive and involve large companies who may not be that concerned about local impacts. Large centralised projects may in any case be the wrong answer for Africa – the very large distances involved make it unlikely that grids could ever cover the entire continent. As with the Grand Inga project much of the power seems likely to be exported on HVDC links to remote markets- not used locally. Local decentralised power may make more sense. That can be micro hydro, or wind, or biomass or solar, technologies which can be installed quickly with low local impacts and a potential for direct local involvement – and possibly for the creation of local manufacturing enterprises to build the equipment The debate over the way ahead continues.

For more see IRN: www.internationalrivers.org/

Also see: Wind in Africa www.theecologist.org/News/ news_round_up/293874/kenya_to_build_africas_biggest_ windfarm.html

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One comment to Hydro – a big future?

  1. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to comment on this post. It was very insightful. It may also serve as interest to you to know that some of the topics that have been mentioned here I will take to the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting) being currently held in my country where the issues of climate change as well as alternative forms of energy will greatly discussed at the People Forum
    Kevin Castle

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