Hydropower 2021: headlines from a year to remember
The giant of renewable energy is no longer ‘forgotten’, writes Will Henley, Head of Communications for the International Hydropower Association. This was the year that influential voices took heed of hydropower’s critical role in the pathway to net zero. The sector meanwhile recognised it must adapt and demonstrate why it deserves green investment.
2021 was another tumultuous year for people across the world, with countries still reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Spurred on by the global vaccination rollout, economies have slowly recovered. It’s been a case of two steps forward, one step back. Fossil fuel use continued at pace, while green recovery packages fell short of expectations.
Despite sluggish growth, prospects have brightened in the hydropower sector due to wider awareness of the technology’s role as the backbone of renewable energy systems. The International Hydropower Association (IHA) has been at the forefront of global efforts to ensure the sector’s two million strong workforce receives the recognition they deserve for ‘keeping the lights on’ during turbulent times.
Hope for the Paris Agreement
The New Year was ushered in with fresh hope that governments could reach a consensus on how to meet the ambitious climate action targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Newly elected President Biden committed to continue to “leverage the carbon-pollution free energy provided by hydropower” while ensuring projects meet "robust and rigorous standards".
The decision of the new US government to re-enter the agreement was welcomed by IHA CEO Eddie Rich as a “great signal” that “shows this administration's clear commitment to tackling climate change, prioritising the energy transition and driving a green recovery”.
Avoiding a near blackout event
Hydropower’s critical role in energy systems was soon illustrated by a near blackout incident in Europe. The failure of a substation in Croatia triggered a dramatic increase in frequency in the south-east European grid and a corresponding drop in frequency in the north-west.
Fortunately, disaster was averted thanks to the immediate ramping up of generation from flexible hydropower as well as gas peaking plants, and load shedding in France and Italy. While in this case the system worked as it was intended to, the narrowly avoided blackout highlighted the importance of hydropower’s flexibility and storage services.
Setting a vision for hydropower’s future
It was soon clear that 2021 would be a critical year for generating widespread political support for the net zero by 2050 agenda and the opportunity to agree on a binding roadmap at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in November.
Seizing the moment, IHA joined forces with the heads of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to highlight the need for greater investment in sustainable hydropower.
Dr Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director, agreed that greater focus needed to be placed on the sector, saying: “Hydropower needs to get the attention it deserves to play its part in the clean energy transition.”
Tragedy in India
Before the month was out, tragedy struck in India, when part of a Himalayan glacier fell away, causing damage to two local hydropower projects and leading to multiple fatalities. “Sadly climate change means we will see more and more weather-related natural disasters,” said IHA’s Eddie Rich.
“Over the long term we need to address climate change by accelerating the energy transition while also making renewable projects and other infrastructure more climate resilient.”
New era of green investment in hydropower
The long-awaited launch of Climate Bonds Standard criteria for hydropower paved the way for a “new era” for green investment in renewable energy. The hydropower sector-specific criteria were released by the Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI), a not-for-profit organisation responsible for climate bond standards and certification.
Developers, banks, governments and other investors can now issue certified climate bonds to finance or refinance hydropower projects that comply with strict social, environmental and climate criteria.
The Climate Bonds Standard criteria for hydropower stipulates use of two sustainability assessment tools supported by IHA and a multistakeholder coalition of organisations. These tools are the ESG Gap Analysis Tool for identifying and addressing gaps against recognised good practice across 12 environmental, social and governance assessment topics; and the G-res Tool for reporting the estimated net greenhouse gas emissions of a reservoir.
European investment rules recognise hydropower
Changes made by the European Commission to proposed investment criteria for hydropower as part of a new regulatory regime for sustainable finance were widely welcomed. The update to EU Taxonomy Climate Delegated Act, a classification system for environmentally sustainable economic activities, came after IHA and other respondents raised concerns with the proposed requirements as originally drafted.
IHA joined the Norwegian government in supporting the revision to the rules for hydropower plants, which cover minimum criteria for power density and life-cycle carbon emissions. This aligned the rules with hydropower sector good practice requirements described in the Hydropower Sustainability Tools and the Climate Bonds Initiative.
IEA outlines pathway to net zero by 2050
The International Energy Agency’s landmark ‘Net Zero by 2050’ report, explored how the global energy sector can successfully decarbonise by 2050. In its Net Zero Emissions scenario, while solar PV and wind power are projected as generating the vast majority of electricity, global hydropower capacity will also need to significantly grow, “doubling by 2050”.
“The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” said the IEA’s Fatih Birol.
Hydropower’s new role – making green hydrogen
Produced using decarbonised electricity and water through a process called electrolysis, green hydrogen is set to be an important component of the transition to net-zero carbon economies.
IHA released a research and policy paper, ‘The green hydrogen revolution: hydropower’s transformative role’, outlining how hydropower could be pivotal in supporting growth in green hydrogen.
Investment opportunities in emerging economies
Africa has the most acute need for energy investment of any continent. An estimated 578 million Africans have no ready access to electricity. While hydropower is the main provider of renewable electricity in Africa with over 38 GW of installed capacity, the continent has the highest untapped potential in the world, with only 11 per cent utilised.
To address the need for new investment in energy infrastructure, IHA and law firm Addleshaw Goddard released An investor’s guide to hydropower in Africa to provide investors with essential information to support the sustainable development of hydropower projects.
Reports highlights gap between targets and reality
IHA’s Hydropower Status Report showed that growth in new hydropower capacity is nowhere near where it should be, if the world wants to achieve net zero emissions.
“Investment in sustainably developed and responsibly operated hydropower is essential to support the massive expansion of variable renewables like wind and solar,” said the report. “However annual growth rates of 1.5 to 2 per cent cannot meet the doubling of installed capacity proposed by the International Energy Agency to achieve net zero by 2050.” Read more.
This would be underlined further in September with a follow-up Hydropower 2050 report looking at the gap in hydropower needed to limit global warming. It found that more than 500 GW of hydropower installations are in the pipeline worldwide, but this is far short of what is required to hold warming to 1.5 degrees.
Seeking to bridge this gap, the International Energy Agency in its Hydropower Special Market Report out “seven priority areas” for policy-makers to support new projects, including pumped storage hydropower. The IEA concluded that hydropower provides “unmatched” flexibility and storage services required for ensuring energy security and delivering more solar and wind power onto the grid.
A declaration on sustainable hydropower
In June, a consultation was opened on a landmark declaration – the San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower - expressing fundamental principles and values of hydropower development. The declaration would later be issued in September at the conclusion of the World Hydropower Congress, with the widespread support of industry and influential figures including COP26 President Alok Sharma.
“This Declaration is a first vital step in increasing the global deployment of hydropower, with solid principles to guide the developments of projects, and sound recommendations for governments and policy-makers developed in consultation with businesses, financial institutions and civil society,” said Sharma.
Practical good practice industry guides
Almost two million people are employed by the hydropower industry worldwide, including engineers, construction workers and sustainability specialists. All workers should enjoy labour rights protected by law and are entitled to safe, reasonable and fair working conditions, whether employed directly by the developer or by a contractor.
To help hydropower companies create safe working environments, IHA published a How to Guide on Labour and Working Conditions containing practical advice and guidance. It was one of six IHA how-to guides published through the year, with others looking at Infrastructure Safety, Biodiversity, Environmental and Social Management, Protected Areas and Indigenous Peoples.
Download IHA's publications.
Smart hydropower tech in demand
Demand is expected to soar for innovative new hydropower technologies which provide flexibility and resilience for electricity grids, according to the results of an industry survey.
The survey by IHA indicated there is high demand for new smart control systems, battery-hybrids and variable-speed turbines among other technologies being trialled by the XFLEX HYDRO project funded by the European Commission.
Innovations to speed decarbonisation
In China, robots using artificial intelligence are being deployed to monitor hydropower plant efficiency and decrease maintenance costs. Elsewhere, in Europe, hydropower battery hybrids are being developed to improve grid services, while in North America a ‘hyperloop for fish’ has been designed to safely transport fish past dams.
These were just some of the remarkable industry innovations showcased in a new Renewable Energy Innovations Hub launched by IHA ahead of the 2021 World Hydropower Congress.
The landmark virtual World Hydropower Congress
The 2021 World Hydropower Congress this year transformed into a virtual event attracting 6,000 delegates from across the globe, with more than 150 speakers across its three weeks.
On the opening day, looking at future energy needs, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told delegates at that “long duration storage is absolutely essential” for energy system stability “and pumped hydro is going to be one of the principal means of achieving that.” Watch again on-demand.
“The question is, how do we implement sufficient projects at scale to make a difference?” he asked.
Greater protections for protected areas
On the eve of the Congress, IHA – representing a hundred public and privately owned developers, operators and manufacturers – announced progressive and stringent safeguards for hydropower development in Protected Areas.
An historic no-go commitment on future development in UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites was accompanied by a duty of care requirement for hydropower companies seeking to build new projects in legally designated Protected Areas.
The new IHA commitments were made following a process of dialogue and engagement with the association’s membership – managing around a third (450 GW) of worldwide installed hydropower capacity – together with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
New certification and labelling scheme launched
Leading hydropower companies and international organisations declared their support for a new sustainability certification scheme for hydropower. The Hydropower Sustainability Standard will help to ensure that hydropower projects across the world are recognised and certified for their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance.
“This new certification system is a game-changer for hydropower and is unmatched in the renewables sector,” said Ashok Khosla, Chair of the Hydropower Sustainability Council which issued the new certification system.
The certification scheme received widespread industry support, with GE Renewable Energy’s Pascal Radue saying: “We will not participate in hydropower projects which do not fully comply with the requirements set forth in the Hydropower Sustainability Standard.”
Government-led coalition calls for pumped hydro
Unless countries invest in pumped storage hydropower they may need to ‘get used to blackouts’ or risk reverting to fossil fuels. This was the warning from the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower, a coalition of 13 governments led by the U.S. Department of Energy, IHA and involving more than 70 multilateral banks, research institutes, NGOs and public and private companies.
The forum was co-chaired by Malcolm Turnbull, former Australian Prime Minister, who warned the lack of adequate long duration energy storage to support growing penetrations of solar and wind power is “the ignored crisis within the crisis”. The coalition put forward seven major recommendations for governments as well as a series of reports on the capabilities and need for pumped hydro.
Award winning association
IHA was named International Association of the Year in the 2021 Association Excellence Awards. The awards recognise the essential work that associations, trade bodies, unions and professional organisations conduct on behalf of their members.
The award is given to an association working across borders that “offers the most exemplary representation, advancement or experience for its members”. IHA was among six associations shortlisted including SolarPower Europe and Eurogas.
Accepting the award, CEO Eddie Rich said: “We are honoured to receive this accolade on behalf of our members who are everyday striving to provide sustainable, renewable energy as well as responsible water management for millions of people all around the world.”
COP26: hydropower on the world stage
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull led IHA’s delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
By the conclusion of the conference, the number of countries pledging to reach a target of achieving net zero emissions had reached 140, covering four-fifths of the world.
Achieving net zero by “around mid-century”, as is called for by the Glasgow Climate Pact, is underpinned by an expansion of clean energy produced by renewables such as hydropower, wind and solar power. The pact recognises that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions”. It also calls for a “phasedown” of unabated coal, along with financial support to the poorest and most vulnerable countries.
During the global summit, multiple governments made clear that investments in new hydropower capacity form a central plank of their renewable energy and decarbonisation plans. “Renewable energy sources, especially hydropower, will be the locomotive of carbon-free policy,” explained Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, who said his country intends to be carbon-free by 2050, by moving away from coal to hydropower.
The United Kingdom, host of the COP26 climate conference, could be an exemplar of how to plan and deliver reliable and renewable energy grids, wrote IHA Energy Policy Manager Rebecca Ellis – provided it seizes the moment and invests in the clean storage provided by hydropower.
Films showcase hydropower’s green credentials
A set of short films produced by the International Hydropower Association (IHA) in association with ITN Productions were showcased in a new online climate change campaign for COP26. The campaign, #OurCollectiveVoicesAreLouder, by ITN Productions aims to inspire, educate and generate debate on how to achieve climate change goals.
How hydropower can separate fact from fiction
In a world in which heated debates about 'greenwashing’ have taken centre stage, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what is truly green from what is not.
Reflecting on a year of high tension, claims and counter-claims, Alain Kilajian, Senior Sustainability Specialist at IHA, looked at criticisms the hydropower sector has faced and what progressive companies are doing to overcome them.
As he noted, “For the hydropower sector, The San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower is the intent and the Hydropower Sustainability Standard is the means to demonstrate this intent. The ground has been set. It is now up to the industry to embrace these tools and separate fact from fiction.”
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