Viewpoint: Hydro and Wind Power

In the world of renewable energy, news from 2008 includes the fact of wind power’s continued rapid growth. Wind added 29 GW during the year. Hydropower also added capacity in this same range — 25 to 30 GW.

In four years, worldwide wind capacity has grown by a factor of 2.5 times, from 48 GW in 2004 to 121 GW in 2008 — an annual growth rate of 26%. This is higher than the growth rate of any other electricity source. Three countries — Germany, Spain, and the United States — now host more than half of the world’s wind capacity. And China and India, in 4th and 5th place, are both adding wind power at a terrific pace.

Hydropower facility owners, operators, and developers need not worry about hydro being displaced by wind power, or by other new renewable energies or any other power source. The world needs all the electricity it can get — especially renewable energy. And, where hydro projects are feasible, they deliver solid value. Hydro often is a low-cost source of electricity that provides long-term support for regional economies. Moreover, the long life, reliability, and durability of hydro projects often provide a bonus. Many types of power projects, including wind projects, will not endure beyond a 20- or 30-year life. Yet, after 30 years, the typical hydro project has hardly reached the middle of its life.

Because the worldwide installation rates of wind and hydro are about the same, gigawatt per gigawatt, it could seem fortuitous that new hydro could “balance” the intermittency of new wind installations. Indeed, among the top five wind-power countries, Spain, China, and India are rapidly adding hydro, and these additions aid them in successfully integrating wind power into their electricity grids. Other countries are not so lucky. Ireland, for example, is adding wind power and is experiencing integration challenges. Within Ireland and many other countries, the opportunities for using hydro to support integration are limited.

We cannot get too much hydro and wind power. To put energy needs in perspective, what if all of the new demands for electricity in the past ten years had been provided from hydro and wind (or other renewables)? (And please keep in mind that electricity provides but a fraction of total energy supplies.) Over the decade, the 40% addition to total electricity generation added about 6,000 terawatt-hours of energy per year. To supply this much electricity from hydro and wind power additions would have required total annual capacity additions totaling 150 to 200 GW … or, about three times as much as was installed in 2008, a banner year. While these levels of addition may not be beyond possibility, they are definitely a far stretch from where we are today. It’s hard to imagine getting enough of either hydro or wind!

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