Austria’s alpine topography, numerous rivers and high precipitation present the country with significant water resources. Hydropower has played an instrumental role in the development of the energy sector, with the first commercial hydroelectric generators powering lights as early as 1884.
Hydropower blossomed after the First World War due to growing electricity demand and a severe shortage of coal resulting from the loss of large coal fields when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved. The development of hydropower helped to reduce severe unemployment and improved local air quality, so much so that politicians referred to hydropower affectionately as “white coal”.
Hydropower experienced another boom after the annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938, when a number of projects were started, only for many to stall during the Second World War. The sector experienced another revitalisation following the injection of funds from the European Recovery Program in the 1950s and continued as the economy strengthened in the 1960s and 1970s.
Large projects came under scrutiny during the 1980s due to environmental and social concerns, and consequently more recent development has focused mainly on small-scale applications, with a few exceptions, notably pumped storage projects.
Austria added at least 15 MW in hydropower installed capacity in 2017, taking its total installed hydropower capacity to 14.1 GW, of which 5.7 GW are run-of-river projects and 8.4 GW are pumped storage projects. More than 3,000 hydropower stations are connected to the national grid, with a further 2,000 very small projects used for on-site consumption off the grid.
Ninety-five per cent of the country’s grid-connected plants have an installed capacity of less than 10 MW, delivering about 13.8 percent of total hydropower generation. The remainder, some 158 projects with capacities greater than 10 MW, provide more than 90 per cent of installed capacity and deliver 86 per cent of total hydropower generation.
Hydropower today accounts for about 56 per cent of total installed power generating capacity, down from around 61 per cent a decade earlier. The slight decline can be attributed to a four-fold increase in wind and solar capacity over the same time period. Nevertheless, Austria’s 2017 Power Grid Development Plan explicitly identifies hydropower as an enabling pillar to support the projected increase of wind and solar.
In addition to supporting the integration of variable renewables, hydropower development is driven by increasing electricity demand and the will to increase energy security to reduce energy and fuel imports. Forecasts have shown Austrian electricity demand increasing by 14-20 TWh by 2030.
With an estimated technical and economic potential of 56.1 TWh, Austria has exploited some 75 per cent of its potential. According to a 2008 Pöyry study, the remaining economically and environmentally feasible potential totals 12.8 TWh. According to the Austrian Electricity Strategy, Empowering Austria, 6 to 8 TWh could be developed up to 2030.
The country’s electricity sector is characterised by strong interconnections with neighbouring countries, especially Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Since 2002, Germany and Austria have shared a bidding zone, meaning that interconnector capacity for cross-border trade has not been limited or explicitly scheduled. However, in November 2016 it was decided by the European Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators that the market would split on 1 October 2018 because of over-supply of German wind and insufficient transmission capacity within Germany causing surpluses to flow into the Czech Republic and Poland, destabilising their grids.
With strong political will to increase renewable generation and to decrease import dependency, the government plans to expand hydropower generation with new greenfield projects and expansion and retrofitting projects. The 10.4 MW (13.2 MW when pumping) Rellswerk pumped storage project was put into operation in 2017, adding additional balancing capacity to the system on the upper regions of the Ill River in Vorarlberg. Further pumped storage projects include the 130 MW Tauernmoos project planned for commissioning in 2025, and the 360 MW Obervermuntwerk II project, set for commissioning in 2018.
This country profile is featured in the 2018 Hydropower Status Report. Download the full report here.
This profile was last updated in June 2018.