PERSPECTIVES: Fighting Phantoms

The world is a risky place. And try as we might to take steps to mitigate against plausible risks, so many issues clamor for our attention that it can be hard to know exactly what to prepare for.

Among threats posing risks to the hydro industry, I believe one that’s worth preparing for pertains to reservoir emissions.

Ironically, emissions from hydro reservoirs likely pose problems only in an exceedingly small number of instances. From a North American perspective, the number of problem cases is likely infinitesimal. The matter first came to attention in the mid-1990s, due to the publication of scientific papers suggesting that shallow reservoirs in tropical regions may produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. While subsequent investigations have been helpful in shedding light on the topic, more work is needed to provide a definitive understanding of the complex phenomena involved.

In the meantime, hydro opponents have seized the issue and are raising the topic with increasing regularity in proceedings for hydro project licensing, approvals, and the like.

It appears that, when battling for public sympathies, hydro’s opponents find the prospect of condemning hydro reservoirs as a source of greenhouse gas emissions just too attractive to resist, regardless of the merit of such claims. It seems likely that, in today’s public policy environment, to raise doubts about hydro’s ‘cleanliness’ is viewed by opponents as a useful stratagem.

A cautionary tale

The history of the battle over the meaning and application of the term “renewable energy” offers a cautionary tale. Some years ago, people in the hydro industry blithely assumed that everybody understood, as they did, that hydropower is renewable. And people in the industry were truly appalled to learn that hydro could somehow be considered not renewable.

Yet the rubber met the road when individual states in the U.S. crafted “renewable portfolio standards.” These standards, now in effect in the majority of states, provide preferential treatment to electricity sources depending on criteria that define what is, and is not, renewable – often defined as “eligible” or “qualified” renewable sources. Suffice it to say that most existing hydro does not qualify as renewable under states’ criteria.

Regarding reservoir emissions, not enough has been done to support effective rebuttals of the claims of hydro’s adversaries. In Canada, millions of dollars have been spent on investigation of reservoir emissions. Yet, in spite of findings quite favorable to hydro, the issue has not gone away.

In the U.S., the topic of hydro reservoir emissions has been raised more recently, catching some project owners off guard. Regardless of the truth of the matter, damage often can be done in public forums if hydro’s opponents are successful in simply calling into question the long-held presumption that hydro produces no emissions.

In Canada, Hydro-Quebec has been foremost among supporters of reservoir emissions investigations. In the U.S., EPRI has taken the initiative to investigate the topic, and the U.S. Department of Energy is seeking to support new research efforts.

Hydro owners: This is in your backyard!

It’s important for hydro project owners to become knowledgeable about reservoir emissions and to support ongoing research efforts. Owners and their customers are, after all, the ultimate beneficiaries of these efforts. Through industry collaboration and cooperation, a few years from now we can hope to look back on this issue – a former threat – as having been successfully put to rest.

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