Near-blackout in Europe shows hydropower’s crucial role in green transition

Delivering on the European Union’s climate-neutral targets for 2050 will require a step-change in the recognition of hydropower’s role in maintaining power system reliability and energy security, writes Eddie Rich, CEO of the International Hydropower Association (IHA).

In January, a blackout event in Europe to rival that of the Texas power crisis was only avoided by the narrowest of margins. And yet the event goes under-reported and the role of hydropower in averting it remains largely unheralded.

A recent report by the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E) lays bare the fault in the European grid and why hydropower, as a source of power system flexibility, should take a central role in the continent’s long-term energy plans.

On 8 January 2021, 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. Such a drop in frequency (or lack of supply) will normally result in major power failures and widespread blackouts if not resolved within a few seconds.  

Fortunately, disaster was averted thanks to the immediate ramping up of generation from flexible hydropower and gas peaking plants, as well as load shedding in France and Italy. While in this case the system worked as it was intended to, the narrowly avoided blackout highlights the importance of hydropower’s flexibility and storage services to that system.  

To maintain a stable grid frequency, essential for balancing supply and demand, grid operators rely on access to flexible, dispatchable power sources. The need for these sources is only going to grow with the rapid roll-out of variable renewables like wind and solar, which provide power on an intermittent basis.

Kadri Simson, EU Energy Commissioner, has highlighted that the energy sector produces 75 per cent of EU emissions and decarbonising the energy system is crucial to achieving EU climate targets for both 2030 and 2050.  

This is a challenge not limited to Europe, however. With the global phase out of fossil fuels and decarbonisation of the power grid, more clean, flexible energy sources, such as hydropower, especially pumped storage hydropower, urgently need to be developed.  

As a renewable, flexible power source, hydropower has an important role to play in enabling more variable renewables and supporting the clean energy transition.  

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that an additional 850 GW of newly installed hydropower capacity is needed by 2050 to help achieve the carbon reduction commitments of the Paris Agreement.

It is therefore of the upmost importance for policy-makers and market operators to incentivise investment in sustainable hydropower, both new capacity and modernisation and upgrading of the existing fleet.  

In December 2020, IHA responded to a public consultation by the European Commission on the proposed EU taxonomy for sustainable activities. The legislation, due to be released in April, will have a significant influence on where post-Covid economic stimulus packages focus energy infrastructure investment.  

IHA requested the inclusion of hydropower and pumped storage hydropower in criteria for sustainable finance. This would bring the taxonomy in line with green bonds qualification according to the Climate Bonds Initiative.  

Recognising the importance of hydropower to the European electricity grid, the European Commission is funding a project aiming to enhance hydropower’s flexibility and system support services (known as ancillary services); the XFLEX HYDRO initiative.  

While hydropower is a proven technology for long duration energy storage and power system flexibility, there are a huge array of innovation, modernisation, optimisation and digitalisation options which are further improving its benefits to the evolving power system.

IHA is one of 19 organisations involved in XFLEX HYDRO, an €18 million, four-year project demonstrating smart digital controls, variable speed, hydraulic short circuiting, and a battery-turbine hybrid at seven sites across Europe.

The project recently issued a report which identifies the future ancillary services expected to be required by the European power grid, the technical requirements for each of these and the corresponding markets. The project will conclude in 2023 with a technical white paper and policy and market recommendations.

The EU’s net zero emissions goals will only be possible if decision makers act now to prioritise development of the services and the storage required for a stable, secure grid through to 2050 and beyond. If not, the near-miss in January was a timely reminder of what could result from under-investment in security of supply.  

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