Carbon Conundrums… And the Truth about Hydropower

The wrangling over what to do about carbon emissions from fuel burning continues. All indications point to the fact that issues relating to carbon emissions will demand our attention for a long, long time.

The primary vehicle for addressing international greenhouse gas emissions – the Kyoto Protocol – is running into serious, and perhaps fatal, problems. However, there’s evidence of forces building to stem carbon emissions through alternative programs. And other initiatives may have a better chance. Among relevant events in 2007:

– A “Washington Declaration” was issued in February by 13 countries (“G8 plus 5”*) that agreed on key principles for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This declaration envisions a new program in place by 2009.

– The U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision in April to the effect that the Environmental Protection Agency has the right to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.** The court’s petitioners – if they get their way – would make this right an obligation.

– Bolstered, perhaps, by the Supreme Court’s decision, in October regulators in Kansas cited the deleterious effects of carbon dioxide emissions as the cause for denying permission to build a 1,400-MW coal-fueled electric generating station. This denial is first time in the U.S. that CO2 emissions have been the reason for rejecting such a permit.

Electric generating facilities and transportation vehicles are primary sources of CO2 emissions. Between the electricity and transportation categories, electric facilities are being targeted as a favored place to obtain CO2 reductions. The rationale is that it likely will be easier to achieve carbon minimization at relatively few large facilities than in millions of over-the-road vehicles. Although hydrogen was heralded as “the solution” for transportation a few years ago, the difficulties of developing and implementing practical, meaningful, and – especially – cost-effective transportation-sector solutions are proving daunting, and electric-sector solutions appear more promising.

It would seem to be a no-brainer that hydropower, along with wind and some other sources of renewable electricity, would be favored as a way to get carbon-free electricity.

Yet in our Alice in Wonderland world, such clear thinking sometimes suffers serious distortions. The spectre of greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower reservoirs has in recent years been continually raised by anti-hydro interests – especially internationally – as a key reason for not building hydroelectric facilities. This challenge to common-sense perceptions of hydropower as a clean, emissions-free source of electricity has been taken seriously within the hydro industry, and substantial scientific efforts have sought to learn the truth about reservoir emissions.

While much more investigation of the issue is needed, the reality about reservoir emissions appears to be that shallow reservoirs in tropical climates can, indeed, emit considerable amounts of greenhouse gases. While this condition likely affects only a tiny fraction of all actual and proposed projects, the emissions issue is employed in efforts to broadly indict hydropower. In fact, during the development of procedures for bi-lateral exchanges under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism – that is, where a “clean” project is undertaken in a developing country to offset emissions from a project in a developed country – hydropower came within a hair’s breadth of being excluded altogether as a clean option. Only the vigilant efforts of a small number of dedicated hydropower advocates prevented the travesty of hydropower’s exclusion.

We can be grateful for the attentiveness given to these important matters by individuals and organizations that represent not just hydropower’s interests, but also the interests of people worldwide who benefit – or who may prospectively benefit – from clean, affordable hydropower. And, while our gratitude is warranted, it’s also important that we each do what we can to help ensure that people – from the man-on-the-street, to policymakers – know the truth about hydropower.


*G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States), plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa.

**In Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency.

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