Hydropower has been around for more than a century, and is one of the world’s largest sources of clean, renewable electricity.

Considering the strains climate change is having on the planet’s limited resources, what role can hydropower play in the future?

Committing to renewable energy sources

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report outlining the long term economic, social and environmental costs the world would have to face if climate change is allowed to progress at its current rate. The report indicates that the effects of climate change will impact every facet of life if not dealt with proactively – this is before the increased demand for energy and subsequent increase in carbon emissions are taken into consideration.

The United Nations (UN) estimates that in 2035, the world’s population will consume 50% more energy. By increasing the application of renewable energy such as hydropower, carbon emissions and pollution can be reduced.

The European Union (EU) set targets to meet 20% of their energy from renewables and to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020. Of new electricity generation in the EU, 72% was from renewables. Elsewhere around the world, countries are committing to meet more of their energy needs through renewable energy sources.

Hydropower around the world

The Three Gorges Dam in China is the world’s largest hydro power station in terms of installed capacity (22,500 MW). The dam spans 2.4 kilometres across the Yangtze River in Hubei Province and captures 84.7 terawatts per hour (TWh) annually.

China is the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity – and for a country that is also the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, hydropower is an important source of clean energy to help combat the pollution of many Chinese cities such as Beijing.

Pakistan’s 1,300-MW Tarbela Dam is the world’s largest fill-type dam and helps combat the country’s rising demand for power. Norway is western Europe’s largest producer of both oil and natural gas, yet it receives 97% of its energy needs from hydropower. Energy-rich countries such as Canada, Brazil and Venezuela all receive over 50% of their electricity from hydropower.

The Potential of hydropower

Hydropower is one of the most established and ready sources of renewable energy, and with 1.2 billion people living without electricity; many countries could potentially take advantage of their natural landscape to produce sustainable energy. Africa has largely untapped potential, where hydropower is already being used to supply electricity and 65% of the population lives in water basins where hydropower can be utilised.

Hydropower makes up 74% of the world’s total renewable electricity generation and 16% of the world’s electricity is generated by hydropower. The current capacity of hydropower could be tripled if all available resources are harnessed, generating around 15,000 TWh per year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) would like the output of hydroelectricity to be doubled globally by 2050.

Roadmap to the future of hydropower

Hydropower provides one of the most effective methods to achieve a renewable energy future. If it is adapted in a sustainable manner, it can be an environmentally responsible segment of any country’s energy supply mix.

The U.S. Department of Energy highlights five ‘action areas’ that would help achieve the Hydropower Vision:

Technology Advancement: Developing innovative technologies will help reduce costs and improve both power production efficiencies and environmental performance.

Sustainable Development and Operation: This includes using integrated approaches that balance environmental, social and economic factors.

Enhanced Revenue and Market Structures: Appropriate compensation and incentives for new and existing hydropower are needed given the numerous energy production and grid support services it provides.

Regulatory Process Optimisation: This includes increasing access to shared data, making information on relevant scientific advances available, enhancing process efficiency and reducing risks and costs.

Enhanced Collaboration, Education and Outreach: Sharing best practices for maintaining, operating and constructing facilities and developing curricula for programs to train new hydropower professionals are needed to usher in the next era of hydropower.

Although hydropower remains one of the world’s largest sources of clean, renewable electricity, many actions remain critical to further the advancement of hydropower as a key energy source of the future.







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