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Hydro – and beyond 2

By Dave Elliott

In my previous post I looked at the role of hydro power, which dominates in many developing countries and regions, supplying nearly 100% of electricity in Albania, Angola, Bhutan, Burundi, Costa Rica, D R Congo, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nepal, Paraguay, Tajikistan and Zambia, as well 60–90% in 30 other developing countries. See

However, as I indicated, there are concerns that, given a range of environmental, social and political issues, large hydro may not be the best option for the future, whereas smaller-scale projects, including micro hydro, wind and PV solar, might be better suited to development goals and local needs. See–and-beyond.html.

I focused on Africa, but the dominance of hydro is even greater in South America. Brazil, the leading economy in the region, already gets 87% of its electricity from renewables, mostly hydro. However, it is trying to diversify, with wind and solar. So are some of the less-developed countries in the region. Nearly 100% of Paraguay’s electricity comes from hydro, but it is trying to expand other renewables, as are Patagonia, Bolivia and Ecuador, with PV especially favoured. Colombia, which currently gets 70% of its electricity from hydro, is investing in wind power: it has an estimated theoretical wind-power potential of 21 GW.

It is the same story elsewhere. 82% of oil-rich Venezuela’s electricity already comes from renewables, primarily hydro, but there are plans for expansion of wind power (with 10 GW or more being said to be possible) and a “sowing light” PV programme. Peru gets 56% of its electricity from hydro and is trying to build up its wind, solar and biomass contributions via a feed-in tariff system. Argentina, which gets 40% of its electricity from hydro, is building a 1350 MW wind farm with Chinese turbines, and is also pushing ahead with PV solar. In Chile, an election campaign promise by President Piñera was to get 20% of energy demand met from renewables by 2020. Uruguay plans to produce 90% of its electricity from renewables by 2015, 30% from wind, 45% hydro and 15% biomass.

Moving north, Mexico, already has 2 GW of wind capacity and is a looking to 12 GW by 2020. There are also some interesting new wave and tidal projects emerging. It aims to get 35% of its electricity from non-fossil sources by 2026, up from 20% now. Nicaragua aims to be 94% renewables based by 2017, using hydro and some wind. In the Dominican Republic, a 2007 law established tax breaks for investment in renewables, which account for 14% of electrical generation. Cuba has been slower off the mark but there are many local off-grid PV projects, as well as hydro, wind and biomass resources, while solar and wind are obvious areas for development in the Caribbean region generally, with some projects under way or planned.

While funding remains an issue in much of Central America and the Caribbean, the solar and wind resources are large, as they are across the whole South American region. Large hydro still dominates but the use of wind is spreading, as is PV, although more slowly while the potential for using biomass, although controversial, is very large. But that’s another story!

There is no question that the use of some types of biomass for energy is likely to be a poor choice. Some energy crops used for liquid-biofuel production have very low calorific value, and mono-cultural plantations can be very bad for biodiversity, as well as requiring a lot of water and undermining local ecosystems. Rapid expansion of biofuel production in the developing world has led to problems such as deforestation and displacement of indigenous peoples. The need to meet rising biofuel targets has also led to exploitation of workers, loss of wildlife and higher food prices. It also contributed to poor harvests, commodity speculation and high oil prices, which raised the cost of fertilisers and transport.

However, much of this is related to commercial pressures for production and export of high-added-value vehicle fuels: there have certainly been reports of poor working conditions in some biofuel plantations in Asia. Biofuels are the ultimate cash crop. But if we move away from high-added-value products such asbiofuels for transport, the situation may get a little easier. Biomass can also be used for heat and power. Indeed, many argue that this make more sense, since the final energy yields/acre using solid woody biomass are generally higher than for liquid-biofuel production.

In particular, there may be a role for some high yield-energy non-food crops on marginal land, and for less-invasive approaches, such as short rotation coppicing. Forests are different matter. It seems clear that deforestation and unsustainable exports should be avoided and that attention should be given to other less-damaging approaches to biomass sourcing. Clearly, though, there is still much to debate, and some environmentalists see biomass as not too dissimilar to the large hydro-something we should avoid. I will be looking at that debate some more in my next post.

For the moment, it maybe worth noting that the World Bank recently reversed a two-decades-old decision to turn its back on large hydropower investment, which it now sees as crucial to meet the bank’s key development goals, claiming that it has the highest potential for clean energy development and was abundant in the poorest regions of the world where the needs are greatest. It has pledged $1 billion in funding for hydro projects in relevant countries. Overall, it aims to place hydro higher on the political agenda, including large-scale projects, arguing that hydro at all scales was vital in affecting the impact of climate change.

This view is not shared by many environmental groups, which see large hydro as not only massively disruptive, in terms of local social and environmental impact, but also as unlikely to help with balanced sustainable development. Most of the power is sent long distances rather than being used locally, and methane emissions from biomass coming down stream and being trapped by the dam making large hydro projects in some hot heavily vegetated areas worse in terms of greenhouse-gas production than coal-fired plants of the same generation capacity. Micro/mini hydro is preferred as being less invasive and more localized. In addition to wind, PV solar is also seen as important for developing regions, including South America. See

Renewable Energy World has been running a useful series of reports on PV’s prospects in the region. See

While it is true that in some locations hydropower, and the storage capacity associated with reservoirs, may be useful to help manage the variability of some these renewables, in the development context, there is a risk that large hydro projects will continue to dominate, squeezing out often more appropriate smaller-scale options. For example, Brazil’s 3750 MW Jirau hydropower plant is the largest single renewable-energy project so far being supported under the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism.

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