Tag Archives: hydropower

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China's Hydropower

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China’s Hydropower: Scientific American.

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WATER FALL: Unusually low water levels in many Chinese rivers has contributed to a big drop in hydropower production. Image: Tomasz Dunn/Flickr

SHANGHAI — China has set ambitious goals for itself to develop hydropower to help mitigate the risks of climate change, but increasing extreme weather events likely rooted in climate change are now sabotaging the goals’ foundations.

The latest blow came in September, when many major rivers across China ran into an unusual shrinkage, with less than 20 percent water remaining at some stretches. As a result, the nation’s hydroelectric generation dropped by almost a quarter compared with last year. There has been an ever-widening decrease in power each month since July, according to a recent government statement.

As water stocks in key hydro stations decline, the regular dry season is approaching. The resulting stress on hydroelectric generation will last into next year, the statement said.

The Chinese government has yet to explain why the water flows slumped. But experts blamed it on climate change, warning of more future droughts in areas traditionally blessed with water.

If this expectation comes true, it will hamper China’s hydropower sector, which contributes most of the country’s carbon-free electricity. It will also threaten a national strategy in transmitting electricity from resource-rich western China to feed the country’s power-hungry manufacturing sector, most of which is in the east.

For Guangdong province, located on China’s east coast, this threat has already turned into a daily reality. Since its western neighbors this year failed to send as much electricity as usual, the manufacturing hub, with a capacity to produce more than half of the world’s desktops and toys, is forced to conserve electricity.

Turbines left high and dry
China Southern Power Grid, the region’s electricity distributor, attributed the energy shortage partly to the evaporation of hydropower.

As of July, on average, not even half of its installed hydropower capacity found water to turn turbines, the company’s statistics show. And several major hydro stations, built as part of the west-to-east electricity transmission plan, failed to do their jobs.

Goupitan, the largest hydroelectric generator in Guizhou province, reportedly produced only 10 percent of its normal output per day, due to shrinking water flows. And in another hydro station called Longtan, located in the Guangxi region, this year’s missing rain dropped its reservoir’s water level to a point dozens of meters lower than previous years.

“This will definitely negatively affect our hydroelectric production from now to next summer,” said Li Yanguang, who is in charge of public relations in the power station. Asked whether next summer — a regular rainy season — could make the situation better, Li answered in a cautious tone.

“This totally depends on weather,” he said. “We can’t predict that.”

Hydro growth plan sticks despite falling power output
But Lin Boqiang, one of China’s leading energy experts, is confident that the nation’s hydroelectric generation may just go in one direction: getting worse.

“If climate change caused this year’s water flow decreases, which I think it did, and then its impact [on rivers] will be a long term. It will take a toll on China’s hydroelectric output, and also push up the cost of using it,” explained Lin, who directs the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.

But still, from Lin’s point of view, such setbacks can’t compete with the Chinese desire for tapping more water power. China, already the world’s largest hydropower user, plans to add another 120 gigawatts by 2015 — a crucial step toward greening 15 percent of its power mix by the end of the decade.

Yang Fuqiang, a senior climate and energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that China’s hydropower plan will stand, though not primarily for energy supply concerns.

Although a climate-resilient approach is factored into the designs of hydro projects, China is still likely to suffer from hydroelectric output decline, says Yang. But the nation can seek more clean energy from the sun or wind, which won’t be affected by climate change, and get the electricity generated elsewhere via a smart grid, he said, referring to an advanced transmission infrastructure China has been building.

So what’s the point of keeping hydro?

“In the future, the importance of hydro projects won’t be on power generation, but on water management,” Yang explained. “It helps control floods, ensure ships transportation and reserve water — a function that [water-scarce] China needs badly.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

New Dam evaluation protocols better but not perfect

Damned if they do : Nature : Nature Publishing Group.

An industry approach to greener hydropower is far from perfect, but it does offer a way forwards.

The mighty Iguaçu Falls in Brazil are an excellent illustration of the power of water, so what better place for the hydropower industry to promote what it says is a fresh approach to its sustainability?

There is ample room for scepticism about the effort — known as the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (see page 430). It is an industry-led endeavour that requires next to nothing from the industry. It grades hydropower projects, but makes no judgement on what should happen to projects that rank poorly. And it is geared towards assessment of individual dams, independent of broader questions about energy-resource development. So far, so bad. Yet, if deployed properly, it could also be an invaluable tool to inject much-needed science and reason into a planning process that has operated with little of either for much too long.

Developers and governments have historically assessed dam projects mainly on the basis of cost and power. Engineers simply survey the landscape to identify the easiest places to block channels, set up turbines and run power lines. Sediments, endemic species and the consequences of severing communication between headwaters and estuaries are very much secondary issues. Even people get short shrift, leading indigenous groups to mount the kind of intense protests that last week saw the Peruvian government shelve plans for a massive dam in the Amazon.

“The hydropower assessment protocol asks all the right questions but fails to provide any answers.”

This standard approach has caused numerous environmental problems — such as siltation and blockages to migrating fish — in industrialized countries, which exploited their best hydropower resources long ago and are now trying to repair the damage. In some cases, the costs of improvement outweigh the benefits, and old dams are being decommissioned. But, in the developing world, hydropower projects continue to stack up. Countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America, in particular, are pursing hydropower with gusto, hoping to alleviate energy poverty and feed burgeoning economies. By one optimistic industry estimate, cumulative hydropower capacity could nearly double by 2030. Without a more coordinated approach, these countries are doomed to make the same mistakes.

The new hydropower protocol comes courtesy of the International Hydropower Association, which consulted with environmental and human-rights groups, as well as representatives from finance and government, in an effort to set out some basic principles of sustainable hydropower.

After three years of work, the result is a way to assess dam projects on a range of criteria — from planning, governance and public engagement to ecology and hydrology. It is voluntary, however, and there are no minimum standards. The protocol asks all the right questions but fails to provide any answers.

This has driven a wedge into the community of environmental and social activists that work in this arena. Critics argue that the protocol represents little more than a public-relations exercise that will allow bad developers to appear green while pursuing business as normal — often on projects that pre-date current environmental thinking. This may be true, but, unfortunately, in the political and corporate world such ‘greenwash’ is common. The new effort would at least create a common language with which to raise concerns, evaluate the best available science and negotiate improvements.

The biggest shortcoming lies in the assessment of individual dams that have already been proposed for specific locations. Much better would be an approach to analyse entire river basins in an effort to identify the most suitable locations, as well as areas where special precautions should be taken. Indeed, it might well be that some rivers should be left to flow freely to preserve ecological integrity.

The protocol does touch on these issues, raising questions about a dam’s role in the broader energy mix and about wider impacts from hydroelectric development. And it could yet offer a foundation to set minimum standards in these and other areas, so that companies would need to build and operate better dams, as well as integrate them into a more comprehensive energy strategy. For all of its faults, the protocol opens another bridge to a better future. Now it’s up to governments, banks and companies to make the journey across.