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. Continue reading

A Portable Power Plant



I believe I can confidently say that all of us at some point during a nature outing have run out of battery power on our cell phone or camera just at the moment we were about to capture a magnificent shot of a cool animal or a picturesque landscape. There are plenty of portable battery chargers that can spare us from those despairing occurrences, but what about one that uses a renewable energy source to charge? I bet you’re guessing it’s solar powered, but that would be too ordinary for the developers at Enomad. They have created a portable hydroelectric generator called Estream that can fit easily into a travel pack. The tube-like device has three turbines which rotate when placed or dragged underwater and the energy created from the rotating turbines gets stored in the battery attached. The battery takes about 4.5 hours to charge, and can power up a maximum of three smartphones, GoPros, or even tablet PCs.

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To Dam or Not to Dam

In southern Laos, near where the Don Sahong dam will soon rise, a fisherman’s son snoozes above his father’s weir, waiting for fish migrating upstream to tire and wash back into the trap. PHOTO: David Guttenfelder

In southern Laos, near where the Don Sahong dam will soon rise, a fisherman’s son snoozes above his father’s weir, waiting for fish migrating upstream to tire and wash back into the trap. PHOTO: David Guttenfelder

Dams are barriers built across rivers and streams to confine and regulate water flow for irrigation and hydroelectricity. However, in recent years, the social, economic, and environmental impacts of these constructions have become a pressing concern. While dams are integral to agricultural irrigation, and can help control floods, the construction causes mass displacement, increases risks of earthquakes and landslides. Along the Mekong in China, the people need clean electricity but also the fish and rice that and undammed river provides.

Ban Pak Ing may be a vision of the future for many Mekong villages. Five more dams are under construction in China. Downstream, in Laos and Cambodia, 11 major dams—the first on the main stem of the lower Mekong—are either proposed or already being built. By disrupting fish migration and spawning, the new dams are expected to threaten the food supply of an estimated 60 million people—most of whom live in villages much like Ban Pak Ing. The electric power generated by the lower Mekong dams is destined largely for booming urban centers in Thailand and Vietnam. Kraisak Choonhavan, a Thai activist and former senator, calls the lower Mekong dams “a disaster of epic proportions.”

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Hydropower by Design

Itaipu Dam, a binational hydroelectric dam on the Paraná River located on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. The dam is the largest operating hydroelectric facility in terms of annual energy generation. Photo/caption © Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy

Dams, although greener in some senses than coal factories in terms of their electric output, almost always have other serious environmental repercussions in the form of habitat destruction and river flow interruptions that adversely affect fish species. Hydropower from giant dams on rivers has been described as a brute force technology, and the construction of new dams can create public outcry as well as political issues in water distribution. The publication of new research, in part by The Nature Conservancy, shows how hydroelectric projects, often so destructive, can be less harmful if planned thoroughly beforehand to take the whole river basin and water system into account, rather than just a small tract of river. Jeff Opperman reports for TNC in a blog article that describes the elements of concentration, confrontation, and collaboration involved in pairing new hydropower with river conservation:


That’s what makes rivers so valuable — both for fish and for energy.

A river is the concentrated water of a whole region as rain and snow across an entire basin becomes runoff, is funneled into cataracts, creeks and canyons, and collected into the narrow ribbon of a river channel (narrow in a relative sense — even a river channel several kilometers wide is incredibly narrow compared to its basin which may be hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in area).

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