Advancing Small Hydro

Andrew Lee — Chief Editor

In the hydropower industry, there’s no better sight than a new project completed, operational and producing clean, sustainable power.

We all know hydro already makes a huge contribution to the clean energy agenda of governments around the world and that it has the potential to do far more. Small hydro developments, in particular, can bring huge benefits to rural communities, giving them access to local renewable power from a source free of the caprices of sun or wind.

That is as true in Europe as anywhere else in the world. So why do small hydro developers in certain European nations sometimes feel like public enemy No. 1? Why did the sector’s trade body, the European Small Hydropower Association (ESHA), recently warn that in some places, small hydro is in a state of “survival rather than development?”

This is an example of the law of unintended consequences at work. Often in Europe, an industry or sector needs to look two ways for the policy and regulatory drivers that will help or hinder its development. In many cases, a policy framework will be set by the European Union (EU) in Brussels, with implementation left to national governments.

The EU has set demanding targets for development of renewable energy sources, most notably in its goal of a 20 percent contribution from renewables by 2020. Brussels has recognized the role of hydropower in meeting these targets, even if it has fallen short of the level of backing that many in the industry would like.

So far, so good. However, a separate initiative, the Water Framework Directive (WFD), is causing consternation in some quarters of the continent’s small hydro community.

It seems this well-intentioned directive aimed at protecting the environmental integrity of Europe’s water bodies is, in some cases, being used as a big stick with which to hit hydropower. Interpretation of the directive by some national governments and intense lobbying by campaigners has constrained the development of small hydro projects, ESHA reports. It cites Poland, Slovenia, and France as examples.

One issue raised by ESHA is that local policymakers simply do not know enough about modern hydropower technology and how project development and environmental integrity are in many cases quite compatible.

Once again, it is possible to conclude that hydropower is not getting a fair crack of the whip when compared to other clean, renewable technologies. At the very least, European regulators need to make sure that the baby of meeting its own energy targets is not thrown out with the bathwater of over-zealous implementation of its directives.

And maybe the industry needs to be better at blowing its own trumpet, even a little more strident. After all, in an era in which nuclear generation is seeing some success at gaining acceptance as a clean energy source, surely hydropower, with its vastly superior credentials, can make its voice heard.

PennWell Corporation, publisher of HRW, celebrates its centenary this year. PennWell serves most of the world’s biggest power and energy markets; all have seen tremendous changes since 1910. To mark the occasion, HRW‘s cover illustrates materials old and new, from the wood of hydro’s past to high-tech superconducting materials of the future. We believe it illustrates an industry that can be proud of its past and excited by the future.

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