Reservoir Emissions: An Issue We Can’t Ignore

“The hydro industry needs a more transparent response to the growing evidence that some dams are bad news for global warming … .”

– Dr. David Victor, in keynote address to delegates of HydroVision 2008

For the past decade, the idea that reservoirs may be sources of greenhouse gases has increasingly been used as a key argument against hydro by its opponents – of individual projects and hydropower in general.

Aspects of this issue that deserve the industry’s greater attention include:

    – Establishing a stronger, more comprehensive, scientific basis regarding what reservoirs do or do not emit.

    – Developing a public relations effort to inform policy makers and the public about this issue.


Too often, our industry has reacted by “sticking its head in the sand” when confronted with claims and threats that initially seem not credible – e.g., the idea that hydro is not renewable, or the simplistic pronouncement that “dams kill fish.”

If our industry fails to address such adverse claims and threats with factual information that’s suitably and aggressively communicated to various constituencies, it does so at its peril.

The quote from Dr. Victor, above, was barely a footnote among his observations about carbon policies – policies that, he said, “hinge on politics, and the politics [can] be very ugly.” He further stated: “I don’t think the acrimonious debate on the [reservoir emissions] issue has served anyone.”

The hydro industry has already suffered consequences that are likely unwarranted with respect to reservoir emissions. For example, disputes over the truth about reservoir emissions led to a result in 2006 that inappropriately excludes many hydro projects from being considered “clean” for the purposes of developing Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects under the United Nations Framework for Climate Change (aka Kyoto Protocol).

It’s been easy for many hydro owners and operators – especially in the U.S., where the Kyoto Protocol is not in effect – to ignore the issue, on the premise that it didn’t apply to them. Well, guess what? The reservoir emissions issue has arrived in the U.S., alive and well. For example, it’s beginning to appear in licensing and relicensing proceedings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Fortunately, some organizations have taken the lead in addressing the reservoir emissions issue, seeing it as a potential threat to the viability of hydro in a new carbon-constrained world.

Hydro-Québec has been the largest backer of reservoir emissions research and investigation and is responsible for perhaps half of all the effort that’s been put forth during the decade since the questions first arose. To illustrate how seriously Hydro-Québec takes this issue, the utility is spending $8 million to $10 million to investigate and determine net emissions from the reservoir of its new 480-MW Eastmain-1 project, which began operating in 2007.

The International Hydropower Association (IHA) has long been involved with the emissions issue (at HydroVision 2008, IHA held a pre-conference forum: “Reservoirs, Hydropower, and Climate Change: Understanding the Greenhouse Gas Footprint”). IHA is a strong advocate for both the research and public relations that are needed.

It’s time for far greater engagement on the issue, especially in the U.S. This is work that’s both urgent and important.


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