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9 November 2022

Hydro to join hands with wind, solar, hydrogen and storage after COP

One message that was somewhat muted coming from COP27 is the one about “unlocking the power of hydro from the International Hydropower Association (IHA). The press release went out early and so far few have picked it up.

There is a simple reason for this – with the exception of China, few countries are showing any affinity for hydro development – for some like the USA, Canada and Brazil this is because many of those countries’ rivers have already been dammed and generate a decent amount of electricity – but also because throughout the time that hydro was most active long memories tell of “disasters” to water supplies, fish spawning grounds and communities that were simply in the way. Few want a repeat of that.

Others for instance France, have a reasonable amount of hydro, but have committed to another form of energy – in the French case nuclear, but in others such as India and Australia, they may have large natural coal resources which have historically softened the blow of going all out chasing fossil fuels – a strategy many are still married to.

The IHA however has been trying to push for using hydro as pumped hydro storage, in support of renewables as a firming resource when they are cursed with intermittency. Pumped hydro of course is a closed loop with imported water from a main waterway, but no return path for that water, so it cannot harm fishing beds and does not feed into the water supply. And good planning can make it harmless to communities. It will need to be fast tracked in order to get funding.

The slow resistance to hydro over the last 100 years has meant a rising number of country specific rules and regulations, which intervene with building fresh pumped hydro schemes as much as they do with pure hydro.

The economics of hydro are still very attractive – no-one ever turns them off once they are built. But looking at a hydro project, investors just go to sleep at the prospect of it taking ten years to get permitting. To a certain extent this is what is starting to happen today in onshore wind, and what has already happened to nuclear – regulations designed to “make sure” these forms of energy “do no harm” mostly involve spending money to jump through hoops when there is no confidence that the final outcome will see the project built – just one more hoop jumped through in the way to getting full permission. In the case of nuclear there are other issues – sourcing fissionable materials and then storing them once depleted and safely operating procedures that will avert another Fukushima.

What does not help hydro is that renewables are continually falling in cost. If it takes ten years to obtain permission for a pumped hydro plant, by that time it would be easier and often by then cheaper, to put a solar farm and batteries in, instead.

So what has the IHA called for from the conference? It needs to see permission granted as rapidly as other forms of renewables. Effectively it wants financial incentives in place for hydro on par with renewables, and it wants streamlined licensing.

One way of making a government open to this is if that same government passes one bill which builds sustainable hydro practices into legislation at the same time as granting a shortcut to permitting and a route to subsidy funding.

Another approach called for by the IHA is to make better use of the transmission facilities in place for hydro, by putting floating solar on each dam reservoir and by putting turbines in dams which don’t already have them, which were built purely for irrigation.

If the IHA was the only voice at COP27 calling for this, it would make a soft sound. But other voices are set to join it, in what it calls the Planning for Climate Commission.

Here the wind industry, in the form of the Wind Energy Council, which is increasingly subject to the same kind of planning delays, along with the Green Hydrogen Organization, and the Global Solar Council all want to form one single voice to focus on speeding up planning approvals for large deployments of every kind of renewables – as much in support of energy security – the new mantra – as climate science.

The launch of the Planning for Climate Commission is scheduled for next week and will try to agree a set of recommendations to present to the UN General Assembly by September 2023 (more delay). It claims to already have the support of several governments, global leaders and experts in renewable energy policymaking.

IHA Chief Executive Eddie Rich, said: “IEA and IRENA say that we need to double global hydropower capacity by 2050 to meet net zero. This cannot be achieved while projects are taking in excess of five years just to be approved.” The more industrialized a country is, the closer that gets to 10 years – again with the exception of China.

The IHA also says it will also be part of the launch of the Global Renewable Energy Alliance, built around a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Global Wind Energy Council, the Global Solar Council, the International Geothermal Association, the Long Duration Energy Storage Council and the Green Hydrogen Organization to establish a new powerful voice for renewables everywhere. The idea is to take all of those separate voices and merge them into one larger voice. It might work if they all play nicely together.

Rich added, “Since COP21 in Paris, we have seen an enhanced and increased ambition to deploy renewable energy at scale. However, increased solar and wind energy will need to be backed up by more long duration energy storage, or face blackouts, brownouts or a return to fossil fuels.”

This could make a final difference, after all, it may upset one person to have a wind farm built near his or her house, or to have a pumped hydro pipeline slightly spoil a countryside view – but it is as nothing to the devastation that is going on right now in the Pakistan floods – and no-one seems to have a problem getting permission to build a new fossil fuel plant. Pushing through fast track permits are certainly the lesser of two evils.

We are reaching the point in the transition conversation where people genuinely want fossil fuels to be taxed, capped and slowed down or in some cases banned, with the resulting funds spent on alleviating climate change or building renewables fate and Rethink Energy would back every pumped hydro scheme to be included in that. However our forecasts at present show that global hydro growth under the current regulations is and will remain minimal.