Why hydropower can no longer go with the flow

Volga Hydroelectric power station, Russia. Image by shushonok on 123rf

Annual investments in hydropower need to grow fivefold says IRENA

Hydropower will be essential for the decarbonisation of the energy sector.

However, for hydropower to have a bright future, it needs to keep up with the changing times, which means that some aspects need to be improved and some adjustments need to be made.

This was the finding of a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), “The changing role of hydropower challenges and opportunities.

According to IRENA, if the world is to meet the climate goals set in the Paris Agreement, hydropower installed capacity should more than double by 2050.

This will require annual investments in hydropower to grow roughly fivefold.

Also, as most hydropower potential lies in developing countries, IRENA suggests that financing institutions and governments work together to overcome local risks and funnel much-needed investment into these regions.

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The report highlights that despite being the most mature renewable technology, hydropower faces a number of challenges that need to be overcome to maximise the renewables resource. The challenges include:

  • The need to ensure sustainability and climate resilience;
  • Changing water flows due to climate change;
  • Ageing fleets and related investment requirements;
  • The need to adapt operation and maintenance (O&M) to modern power system requirements;
  • Outdated market structures and business models that do not recognise the full range of services provided by hydropower.

Investments must be directed to modernisation and refurbishment, and new capacity to cope with present and future power system requirements.

Also important is the need for new business models and market structures that appropriately reward the services that hydropower can provide and that are increasingly more valuable, like flexibility and balancing services.

“Hydropower has been an effective source of clean power generation for more than a century,” said IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera.

“However, with the rapidly evolving energy landscape, it is important to reevaluate its future role and leverage recent technological advancements that can maximise its potential while ensuring its sustainability and climate resilience.”

The report also emphasises that the planning and development of hydropower will only be successful if aspects of sustainability and resilience are taken into consideration.

This can be achieved by ensuring that adequate measures that protect communities, water flows, water quality and local species are embedded throughout the development and operation of hydropower projects.

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