Blog: Advancing sustainable hydropower – four early lessons

By Eddie Rich, CEO, International Hydropower Association

On Friday (20 September 2019), over four million workers and students from all around the world walked out of their places of work or study to protest about inaction about climate change.  As Greta Thunberg says “Change is coming whether we like it or not”.  As the BBC covered the protests, they highlighted the need for renewable energy and showed footage of solar and wind plants.  I screamed at the television “where’s hydropower?” – my wife answered, on its behalf, “that’s your job”.  

There is need for a bigger and better contribution to green energy from hydropower. IHA’s role is to advance sustainable hydropower by building and sharing knowledge on its role in renewable energy systems, responsible freshwater management and climate change solutions. IHA is the key organisation to make sure that the industry is well informed about good practices, has the capacity to implement them, and the world benefits from the best use of this precious technology.

I began as IHA CEO on 9 September - the second CEO in the organisation’s 24-year history following the great Richard Taylor.  In my second week, I faced a new Board which elected a new President – I am delighted to work with Roger Gill.  Change has come – at least to IHA personnel.  We still have a long way to go.  

My first job is to listen.  What I heard can be summed up in quotes from Board members and key stakeholders:

Resetting and lifting the image of hydropower

“We have to make the public aware of the role of sustainable hydropower in clean energy systems” Gil Maranhão, Engie Brazil

Hydropower accounts for nearly two-thirds of renewable electricity generation globally.  Yet solar and wind get much more attention in international media.  Even though the demand for energy is set to double by 2060, collectively these renewable energy sources can achieve this whilst also meeting the Paris climate targets.  Hydropower, in particular, is complementary with the others through its ability to balance variable renewable sources and provide grid stability.  It can also add value to, in a single project.  

When people think of hydropower, their first mental image should be about grid stability, water supply, irrigation systems, flood control, tourism, etc. Our image needs to be both green and blue.  

We also need to find accessible language to explain the benefits of hydropower.  Hydropower can provide electricity when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.  But when they do, their energy can be used to pump water to the top of a hill to run down and create energy when those other sources are not available.  This has been called a “water battery” or a “battery without chemicals”.  

Next month, I am travelling to China. China is set to develop almost as much new hydropower capacity as the rest of the world put together over the next five years.   I want to learn how China has won an argument that will help them deliver their Paris targets, which has not yet been won elsewhere.  I also want them to demonstrate the sustainability of their projects through use of our assessment tools.

With so much buzz right now about climate action, we sit on a technology that is being underdeveloped.   Lifting the profile of hydropower is not an add-on, it is our core business.  We need to read the news.  We need to be the news.  Who’s got Greta’s phone number?  

Recognising, acknowledging and incentivising good practice

“Our Hydropower Sustainability tools should better recognise and reward projects that demonstrate good and best practice in hydropower development and operation, to encourage peer competition and positive reinforcement.” Ruth Tiffer Sotomayor, World Bank

Too many think hydropower is big, bad and ugly.  Yes, there are bad projects. Our job is to raise the bar for the whole sector. And not just on environment, but also on its impact on public health, economic growth, labour conditions, and so on. IHA has the tools and guidance to assess the sustainability of the design, implementation and operational phases of hydropower projects.  This key flagship product is based on robust scientific research and evidence.  It is not just an industry viewpoint – these tools are established by a multi-stakeholder council of NGOs, international finance institutions, governments and companies.  From my experience in promotion of transparency in the extractives industries, I know the power of this type of collective action[1] to drive improved performance.  

These tools need to be more broadly used.  To do this, we need to do three things:

  • Hardwire them into the requirements for international finance and into national legislation and regulation, so the only option is to develop sustainable hydropower projects that comply with internationally recognised good practice.
  • Promote the tools with our huge network of companies and governments.
  • Recast them less as assessment tools and more as recognition tools.  The tools need to provide more than a feedback loop but an incentive – more awards, badges, scores and indices to create peer competition and positive reinforcement.

Turning excellent analysis into excellent policy and practice

“We need to boost our policy as well as analytical skills” Tammy Chu, HydroTasmania

IHA is trusted as the go-to source for hydropower data and research on topics such as clean energy systems, modernisation and digitalisation, climate mitigation and climate resilience, green finance, sediment management, pumped-storage hydropower (“Water battery” referred above), regional interconnections, world heritage sites,  etc.  We take pride in this image and need to continue to build it through our flagship publications like the Hydropower Status Report, the tools, guides and portals through regional work and also through a series of projects with key partners.

It is important that evidence becomes evidence-based policy – adopted and implemented by governments and companies.  Good practice must be embedded throughout the sector. We need a place at the table. We need to convene the global public debate as we have done through seven World Hydropower Congresses. This takes credibility, diplomatic skills and convening power.  Turning excellent analysis into excellent policy and practice will be a key priority.  

Making the whole greater than the sum of the parts

"We are transferring from an organisation led by its founder and a President who has served for six years – that creates opportunities and challenges” – Tron Engebrethsen, Statkraft

At the heart of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s famous novel, the Leopard, is a presiding paradox “for things to remain the same, everything must change”.  IHA has a new Board, a new President and a new CEO.  I am delighted and honoured that Richard Taylor, the outgoing CEO, is staying on as my advisor to ensure a strong and smooth transition.  He has advanced sustainable hydropower so far with unparalleled passion, knowledge and skill and often against immense odds and resistance.

Many of our stakeholders think of IHA as a big organisation.  In many ways, we are: almost 100 member companies, 150 fellows, 50+ partners, active in more than 100 countries involved in policy, planning, permitting, financing and regulation of hydropower.  Yet, we are less than 20 staff with a turnover of a little over £1 million a year.  We therefore will have to work as a spider in a web – drawing more deeply on and leveraging the skills within the Board, the membership, partners, stakeholders and staff, to represent the interests of sustainable hydropower.  

Looking ahead

That hydropower is so central to global climate change, energy and water discussions is a huge tribute to the work of Richard and IHA.  There is more to do.  Please let me know your ideas, engage and deliver…  

[1] Eddie Rich and Jonas Moberg’s book “Beyond Governments – Making Collective Governance Work” is available from Routledge

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