Dam Solutions - Energy

Hydropower: Moving from renewable to sustainable

With climate change an ever-increasing threat, a sufficient and sustainable supply of electricity to the world’s population is one of today’s greatest challenges.
The current global system of electricity production, which includes nearly 20% hydroelectricity, is still failing large parts of the world's population. Close to 2 billion people have no access to electricity.

"At particular sites, hydroelectricity can provide low-greenhouse gas emission electricity that is particularly useful for meeting peak loads." – WWF Climate Solutions

Global energy needs are rising rapidly, but reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil is rapidly leading to climate change.

“Green” solutions such as better energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower, all contribute to the way forward.

But in the case of hydropower, renewable isn’t always sustainable

Hydropower is a renewable energy source, but hydropower plants can have huge impacts on people and the environment.

The scale of the environmental and social damage caused by the construction and operation of some hydropower stations is such that they fail to pass the sustainability test: their negative effects outweigh their contributions to renewable energy.

Yet sustainable hydropower is possible

In its 'Climate Solutions Report: WWF's Vision for 2050', WWF commits itself to an expansion of sustainable hydropower.

In this report, it argues that sustainable hydroelectricity is a necessary and available option to help prevent the world’s average temperature from rising 2°C. Specifically, it suggests repowering old existing hydropower dams and installing sustainable new small, medium, and large hydropower projects.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
Hydroelectric power stations generate energy that is renewable, but not always sustainable.
© WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther

Powerful potential from repowering

The process of retrofitting old hydropower stations with modern equipment, repowering helps ageing dams produce more electricity. Typical investments include replacing turbines and generators, adding machines to facilitate periods of high demand, and increasing storage capacity by raising the height of the dam.

The impacts of repowering generally are minimal and modifications can be done relatively quickly. Plus, it provides an opportunity to reverse existing environmental damage, for instance by installing equipment that facilitates fish passage.

Sustainably built and operated new hydropower

WWF estimates that it may be possible to develop 30% of the economically feasible small hydropower capacity in most river basins or nations without unacceptable impacts. Additionally, 250GW of large and 20GW of medium hydropower potential could be developed with relatively low impacts, particularly in the least developed parts of the world, such as in Africa. 

In the construction of all new hydropower projects, WWF advocates social and environmental safeguards, which are based on the guidelines of the World Commission on Dams. This includes comprehensive planning to determine energy needs and a thorough options assessment.

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