Big Hydro’s Climate Change

Lake Oroville, the reservoir behind the Oroville Dam in California, at a near-record low level on September 1. Because of drought, the dam has not operated since August 5. GEORGE ROSE / GETTY IMAGES

Jacques Leslie, a Yale e360 regular and Los Angeles Times op-ed contributor, is a leading authority on dams, so his opinion here is worth noting:

As Warming and Drought Increase, A New Case for Ending Big Dams

The argument against major hydropower projects — ravaged ecosystems and large-scale displacement of people — is well known. But dam critics now say that climate change, bringing dried-up reservoirs and increased methane releases, should spell the end of big hydropower.

As the hydroelectric dam industry tries to reposition itself as a climate change solution, more and more evidence shows that climate change actually undermines the case for hydro dams.

Gone are the days when hydropower was considered the predominant engine of the world economy, leading a tenfold increase in global energy production over the twentieth century. Now its advocates portray it as a complement to wind and solar energy, a necessary source of steady output to balance wind and solar’s intermittent generation — and therefore a key component in the battle to limit climate change.

One reason for the industry’s shift in strategy is that newly installed global capacity in hydropower lags far behind new wind and solar capacity, and declined each year from 2013 to 2019, with only a slight uptick in 2020. Another reason is that if hydropower is accepted as a tool for combating climate change, hydro developers would have a better chance of qualifying for financial support from governments and international institutions — all possessing funds they need for their pricey projects. With the ongoing United Nations conference on climate change in Glasgow in mind, Eddie Rich, chief executive officer of the International Hydropower Association (IHA), said recently that because of hydropower’s purported climate change-fighting attributes, his group seeks “appropriate support in the form of tax relief or concessional loans to ensure projects are bankable, as well as streamlining the approval process.”

But the IHA faces an uphill battle in overcoming dams’ well-established liabilities — including ravaging the ecosystems of at least two-thirds of the world’s major rivers and upending the lives of hundreds of millions of people living both upstream and downstream from dams. Climate change further weakens the case for hydroelectric dams by intensifying droughts that increasingly hamper electricity production and by boosting evaporation from reservoirs as temperatures rise. In the pre-climate change era, plentiful methane emissions from some reservoirs might have been considered inconsequential, but now they are a major source of concern.

The just-completed 2021 World Hydropower Congress — whose theme was “Renewables Working Together” — ended with the announcement of the “San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower,” a document that affirms the industry’s commitment to best practices, including careful consultation with communities threatened by dam construction, responsible management of biodiversity impacts, and a long-overdue ban on projects in UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The document has been endorsed by at least 40 governments and such luminaries as Tony Blair, former British prime minister, and Malcolm Turnbull, former Australian prime minister.

But there is ample evidence that the IHA’s efforts amount chiefly to greenwashing, portraying the industry as socially and environmentally sensitive while carrying out business as usual. For all its gaudy rhetoric, the San José Declaration contains vague and untested enforcement mechanisms, and it remains unlikely that IHA member companies would be disciplined for violating its provisions…

Read the whole opinion here.

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