A World of Opportunity

Hydro is high on the global agenda as nations look to energize their economies, bring power to remote regions, and move toward clean, renewable generation. HRW looks at the status of hydropower on each continent, some of the major projects under way, and the factors that will drive hydro development in the future.

By Russell W. Ray and Andrew Lee

Each of the five major regions of the world have their own unique opportunities and challenges with regard to hydroelectric generation. This valuable resource provides the potential to increase clean energy generation, develop a region’s abundant natural resources, and attract economic investment. At the same time, regions must change perceptions of hydroelectricity, overcome objections to new project development, and find new sites for this development.

The following five sections give an overview of the state of hydroelectric development in the various regions of the world.

Europe. On a clean energy mission

Early in 2010, a new European body called Friends of the Supergrid was launched in London. Its mission is to promote a renewables-friendly transmission system that efficiently interconnects the continent and makes best use of new resources such as offshore wind.

Since it was first mooted, the Supergrid’s supporters have highlighted the role of one particular source of backup power to balance the grid and help compensate for wind’s natural variability. The source is Norway’s impressive 27,000 MW of hydropower capacity, and suggestions that hydro could play such a pivotal part in such an ambitious project illustrate its importance to Europe’s drive for a cleaner energy future.

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Norway’s Statkraft has ambitions to be a swing producer for Europe using the hydro resource from facilities such as Bjølvo, near Alvik.

Norway is well aware of its potential in this regard. “Hydropower in Norway should be valuable for compensating for the irregularity of wind power. Being a swing producer to the European market is a very important role for us,” Bard Mikkelsen, chief executive of state-owned power group Statkraft, has said.

Statkraft’s confidence reflects a growing awareness in Europe of the potential of hydro, and in particular pumped storage with its ability to create power at times of peak demand.

For example, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) is proposing to build two new large pumped-storage facilities in Scotland that, if they go ahead, will become the first of their kind in Great Britain for more than 30 years.

SSE expects the planned schemes to have an installed capacity of 300 MW to 600 MW each. Announcing the proposals, the company’s chief executive, Ian Marchant, said, “Our goal is to maintain a diversified portfolio of power stations, with the flexibility to respond to customer demand for electricity while achieving a 50 percent reduction in the carbon dioxide intensity of electricity produced. Pumped storage can help us to achieve this goal, and after 30 years I believe it is a technology whose time can come again.”

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Three Gorges in China is Asia’s landmark hydro project, but many others large and small are planned for a region where hydro is seen as a means to power economic development.

In another development, Alstom signed a 178 million euro (US$240 million) contract to provide equipment for a new 1,000-MW pumped storage installation in Switzerland.

Marchant’s words embody the priorities of Europe’s power and energy sector. The continent is on a mission, mandated by the European Union (EU), to achieve a 20 percent share of energy consumption from renewable sources (including hydro) by 2020.

A report prepared for the European Commission in 2007 noted: “Due to the long term deployment of large scale hydropower plats in the EU mix, it is often considered as a mature family of technologies, with little or marginal prospects for improvements or for new generations of technologies.”

The growing profile of large-scale hydropower and pumped storage as a contributor to renewable energy targets is helping to change this perception. With an installed capacity of some 180,000 MW on the continent, hydropower makes a huge contribution to Europe’s energy market. And with an emphasis on upgrading and refitting existing plants (especially in the East), there are major opportunities in the sector. The continent is also home to major global suppliers, such as Alstom, and a world hub of technical innovation.

There is considerable scope for small hydropower (defined as less than 10 MW in Europe) to play a bigger role. According to the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC), the current installed capacity of 12,000 MW of small hydro in Europe leaves plenty of untapped potential. EREC believes the remaining economically viable sites could generate 20 terawatt-hours (TWh) each year in the core EU-15 nations and 27 TWh annually in the enlarged union and candidate countries. As recently as March, the UK’s Environment Agency claimed small hydroelectric schemes could power 850,000 homes and produce 1.5 percent of the country’s electricity needs.

Asia/Oceania. Hydropower’s golden opportunity

When the 1,070-MW Nam Theun 2 hydro facility in Laos began supplying electricity to neighbouring Thailand in March, it became the latest symbol of the massive potential of hydropower in Asia.

Hydro is booming across the Asia/Oceanic region, providing the primary source of growth in renewable energy and creating exciting new opportunities for equipment suppliers and providers of technology and services.

Nam Theun 2 will export electricity to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), helping Laos’ neighbour meet its peak power requirements as well as supplying its domestic utility. Co-owned by French utility EDF, the Lao government, and EGAT itself, Nam Theum 2 is expected to generate some US$2 billion for its stakeholders over the next 25 years before reverting to the Laos state.

Another major project, 600-MW Nam Ngum 2, will soon follow, reinforcing Laos’ ambitions to become a ‘battery’ for South East Asia and develop hydropower, one of its few abundant natural resources, into an engine for economic growth for a nation that lacks many other alternatives.

Neighbouring Cambodia is also getting in on the act, with China and Vietnam both investing in hydro projects. The country has ambitions to build its hydro generation capacity up to 2,000 MW by 2020. The latest major potential project to be announced is a 1,000-MW facility on the Mekong, licensed by the Cambodian government to a Vietnamese development company that will now report on its feasibility and the potential environmental impact.

While the growth of hydropower in Southeast Asia’s nations is impressive, it is inevitably overshadowed by the vast ambitions of the local superpower, China.

China already hosts the landmark 22,400-MW Three Gorges facility and has made it clear that it sees more large-scale hydro projects as a key element of its national energy strategy.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua recently reported how a senior member of the finance and economic committee of the National People’s Congress named hydropower as the nation’s “first choice” source of power to help it meet its burgeoning energy needs and its stated targets on emissions reduction. To achieve these goals, Xinhua quoted the committee member calling for an installed hydropower capacity of 300,000 MW to be in place by 2020, compared to the existing 190,000 MW.

As well as ramping up domestic capacity, China is investing heavily in hydro projects elsewhere in the region, as well as further afield in Africa.

For example, a Chinese consortium is involved in plans to dam the Salween River in Myanmar, one of Southeast Asia’s least-developed hydro resources.

Small hydro is also firmly on the agenda for China, and indeed Asia as a whole. Across the region, rural electrification is a major priority of economic development, and small hydropower projects have long been a mechanism for achieving it.

Governments and international development bodies are actively backing small hydro projects on economic grounds and as a way to boost renewable energy’s share of the total generation mix.

The Chinese government announced in March the development of ten small hydropower projects in Hubei Province using a China Climate Change Framework Loan from the European Investment Bank.

Small hydropower is also a high priority for India, the other emerging powerhouse of Asia. India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has identified some 5,400 sites with the potential for small hydro development representing a total capacity of 14,300 MW (India classes small hydro as less than 25 MW). The country had 2,400 MW of small hydro installed as of spring 2009 but wants to boost that to 7,000 MW by the end, of its 12th Five Year Plan in 2017. To that end, the Indian government has set out to make small hydro schemes attractive to private sector investors, and 23 states now have policies in place to provide incentive to private developers.

Larger scale hydro projects are also proceeding apace as India attempts to power up its capacity to meet the needs of its rapidly-growing economy.

Interest in hydro development is no less pronounced in the Oceanic region. For example, Australia, New Zealand, and the World Bank recently agreed on funding to examine a hydro project for the Solomon Islands, where cheap, reliable power is desperately needed

In the Central Asian states, Russia is playing a role in developing hydro projects through major concerns such as RusHydro, which is also leading the charge to overhaul and develop Russia’s own hydro sector after a period of stagnation during the 1990s.

Latin America.Investment magnet in tough times

Despite tough economic times, Latin America continues to attract major investments for new hydroelectric projects. The investments come in all shapes and sizes, from Brazil’s 11,200-MW Belo Monte project on the Xingu River to the 8.5-MW El Encanto project on the Veracruz River in Costa Rica.

Latin America has about 140,000 MW of hydropower capacity. But experts say the potential for new hydropower capacity in the region is more than four times greater than its existing capacity.

In Brazil, for example, there are several major hydroelectric projects under construction or in some stage of development, including dams on the Xingu, Madeira, Tapajos, and Tocantins rivers, tributaries of the Amazon River. Altogether, Brazil is building or planning more than 25,000 MW of new hydropower capacity.

The 11,200-MW Belo Monte in northern Brazil is scheduled to begin commercial production in 2015 and will be Brazil’s second largest power station behind the 14,000-MW Itaipu complex in southern Brazil. An auction to sell the rights to build and operate the Belo Monte project was held on April 20, 2010. The winner was a nine-company consortium led by state-controlled Companhia Hidro Eletrica do Sao Francisco. The project will cost an estimated 20 billion reais (US$11.2 billion), according to Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry.

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Brazil, home to the giant 14,000-MW Itaipu hydroelectric complex, is building or planning more than 25,000 MW of new hydropower capacity.

In other development news, Alstom Hydro is supplying 19 turbines and 22 generators for the 3,150-MW Santo Antonio hydroelectric project on the Madeira River in Rondonia State. The plant is expected to be online by mid-2012.

To better supply hydroelectric projects in northern Brazil, Alstom joined forces with Bardella, a Brazilian capital-goods company, to build a manufacturing plant in Rondonia. The plant, which was inaugurated in March 2010, is producing floodgates and other equipment for the Santo Antonio project. The plant also will be used to supply projects in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Central America, Alstom said.

Meanwhile, Eletrobras, Latin America’s largest electric utility, said it is studying the feasibility of a US$4.8 billion hydroelectric project comprised of six plants with a combined capacity of some 9,000 MW in northern Peru.

The Corina project calls for pumping water through a mountain tunnel from the Amazon’s Maranon River. It would be Peru’s largest hydropower facility.

Eletrobras recently said it plans to increase investments in some of Brazil’s largest hydropower and transmission projects. The company said it will boost investments to 9 billion reais (US$5.1 billion) in 2010, up from 5.4 billion reais (US$2.96 billion) in 2009.

Right now, Ecuador relies heavily on imported electricity from Colombia and Peru to meet demand and spends more than US$2 million a day on imported power. That may change once the 1,500-MW Coca Codo Sinclair hydro project begins commercial production in 2015.

Sinohydro, China’s largest dam builder, signed a contract in October 2009 to build the project and brought with it a US$1.7 billion, 15-year loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. The Chinese bank agreed to finance 85 percent of the Coca Codo project, while the government of Ecuador will fund the remaining 15 percent. It will be Sinohydro’s first venture in the Americas, a major milestone in the company’s history.

Africa. Hydro, a route to transformation

A new study from World Bank shows that almost half of the US$93 billion needed to improve Africa’s infrastructure must be invested in the construction of new power supplies.

The study, Africa’s Infrastructure: a Time for Transformation, assessed the infrastructure in 24 countries across the continent and found that Africa’s greatest needs are in the power sector and that the development of new hydropower may be the best way to increase the continent’s total capacity.

“The most cost-effective way to expand Africa’s power generation is through regional trade,” the study found. “Mobilizing the benefits of regional trade depends on developing major untapped hydropower projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Guinea.”

With a population of 800 million, Africa’s 48 countries generate about the same amount of power as Spain, which has a population of 45 million, the study found. In addition, Africa’s power sector has grown on average barely 1 percent annually, or less than 1,000 MW a year, since 1995.

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The Tekeze Dam project in Ethiopia is expected to improve reliability of electricity supply to a nation that is currently plagued by regular power blackouts.

“Installed capacity will need to grow by more than 10 percent annually, or more than 7,000 megawatts a year, just to meet Africa’s suppressed demand,” the study states.

Ethiopia’s 300-MW Tekeze hydroelectric project was completed in November 2009. The project is Africa’s tallest dam at 188 meters high and is expected to play a vital role in meeting the country’s growing demand for electricity.

The Tekeze project is expected to improve reliability in a country that regularly imposes blackouts on its 80 million residents due to a shortage of power.

“All challenges faced during more than 10 years of work on this project are outweighed by the increased quality of life for the Ethiopian people,” said Ralph Watt, project manager for MWH, the engineering and construction firm that oversaw the design and construction.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia is moving forward with plans to construct the nation’s largest hydroelectric project, a 1.4 billion euro (US$1.75 billion) dam known as Gibe 3, on the Omo River. Salini Costruttori of Italy is building the 1,870-MW project under a contract with Ethiopian Electric Power Corp.

The project, 240 kilometers southwest of Addis Ababa, includes a 240-meter-tall rockfill dam, tunnel, distribution and water diversion works, and a powerhouse. Construction of Gibe 3 follows the completion of 184-MW Gilgel Gibe and 420-MW Gilgel Gibe 2.

Salini recently denied allegations that the Gibe 3 project would deprive 200,000 Ethiopians, who rely on fishing and farming, of a living. In a statement, Salini said: “The dam will not block the flow of water to the river indefinitely, but merely redistribute it during the course of the year. Activities connected to the local fishing trade will not be destroyed. Agriculture will be able to benefit from a constant supply of water through the year.”

What’s more, Ethiopia is developing several run-of-river hydro projects in hopes of delivering power to about 1.8 million people in 295 towns and villages. The country is seeking designs and social impact assessments for five small hydro projects — Dilla, Tiski, Tum, Yabus, and Zey. In addition, the Nile Basin Initiative is identifying water resource projects, including hydropower, in three river basins in Uganda and Kenya.

Using funds from the World Bank’s Nile Basin Trust Fund, the initiative is looking for water resource projects in the Lake Kyoga Basin of Uganda and the Gucha-Migori River and Yala River basins of Kenya.

North America. A long way from “tapped out”

In North America, many of the larger sites for hydropower production have been developed. As a result, developers are looking at non-powered dams to add generation. Also, companies are considering increasing the generating capacity of existing hydro plants, while others are pursuing new hydrokinetic projects.

Meanwhile, scores of companies are submitting plans to build small hydropower projects across the U.S. and Canada, thanks to new tax credits, grants, and initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The number of proposals to build new hydropower capacity in the United States is up about 30 percent from two years ago, said Ed Abrams, deputy director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Hydropower Licensing.

“A lot of these are at existing federal dams,” Abrams said. “We have had quite a few 5-MW exemptions for small projects.”

In announcing US$32 million in economic stimulus money for upgrades at non-federal hydroelectric projects of all sizes, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said, “There’s no one solution to the energy crisis, but hydropower is clearly part of the solution and represents a major opportunity to create more clean energy jobs.”

The United States has about 100,000 MW of hydropower capacity. However, a study by Navigant Consulting Inc. shows that the technical potential is around 400,000 MW. The study estimates the industry could add 60,000 MW of new capacity by 2025. Up to 700,000 jobs could be created by 2025 if the potential for new capacity is met, the study shows.

American Municipal Power (AMP) is building five run-of-the-river hydro plants on the Ohio River. Altogether, the five plants will be able to generate more than 350 MW of renewable power.

The five projects planned by AMP show that there are plenty of opportunities to increase hydropower capacity in the United States, said Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association.

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The 6,800-MW Grand Coulee Dam on the U.S.’s Columbia River in Washington state is the largest hydroelectric facility in North America.

“The biggest challenge we have is the myth that we’re tapped out,” Ciocci said. “There are a lot of people who generally feel that we can’t build any more hydro in (the U.S.) because all the best sites are taken.” The industry estimates, by contrast, that it could double U.S. hydropower production by 2030.

Hydropower is on the verge of a renaissance in Ontario, Canada, fueled by what experts describe as ground-breaking policy in renewable energy.

Enacted in September 2009, Ontario’s Green Energy Act simplified the approval process for renewable energy projects and provided producers a fixed price above market rates for the electricity they produce.

Paul Norris, president of the Ontario Waterpower Association, said the Canadian province is bent on weaning itself off coal-fired generation and that hydropower is going to be the “backbone” of Ontario’s power sector. Norris pointed to the passage of the Green Energy Act and a government plan to invest C$2.3 billion (US$2.3 billion) over three years on new transmission and distribution projects in the north, where the potential for hydropower development is abundant.

“It’s a very positive step forward in terms of the certainty our business has been looking for,” Norris said. “We probably have five or six dozen active hydro applications in Ontario right now. Most of those are at the smaller scale, under 50 MW.”

The Canadian government’s ecoEnergy for Renewable Power program is investing more than C$1 billion (US$1 billion) to boost Canada’s supply of electricity from renewables, including small hydro and ocean energy. The ecoEnergy initiative already provides incentive payments to several hydro projects for their first ten years of operation.

Russell Ray is associate editor and Andrew Lee is chief editor of HRW

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