The year in hydropower: headlines from 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. Global disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic underlined the demand for, and resilience of, renewable energy solutions such as hydropower.

Throughout the last 12 months, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) has been at the forefront of initiatives to promote a green recovery and enhance the sustainability of projects all around the world.

Here are some of the most important headlines from the last year:


At the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s General Assembly in Abu Dhabi, the Government of Switzerland received support from some 40 countries for a new hydropower sector initiative, at a ministerial session organised together with IHA and the World Bank.  

The IRENA Collaborative Framework on Hydropower would later launch with the goal of expanding the deployment of hydropower technologies to support the clean energy transition. “As an enabler for integrating higher shares of renewable energy into power systems, hydropower is set to play an important role in the energy transition and will be critical to the decarbonisation of economies,” said IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera.


Senior African government representatives and leaders from the energy sector, financial institutions and civil society gathered in Côte d’Ivoire at the Africa High-level Roundtable on Sustainable Hydropower Development to chart a course for the sustainable development of the continent’s hydropower resources.  

The event was organised by IHA and the African Development Bank (AfDB) and looked at strategies for ensuring projects are developed in accordance with international good practice, while overcoming challenges to development and access to finance.  

A new Hydropower Sustainability ESG Assessment Fund was launched for project developers and operators in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas to benchmark and raise their social and environmental performance. The $1m fund will be awarded to up to 40 hydropower projects to help raise their environmental and social performance using the Hydropower Sustainability Tools.  


As the scale of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, countries around the world went into lockdown. “Covid-19 will significantly impact our industry. It will hamper global supply chains, delay construction and temporarily reduce demand,” warned IHA President Roger Gill. “IHA will be ready to voice the role of sustainable hydropower in delivering a better post-Covid society.”

A Covid-19 position paper later published by IHA looked at the impacts of the crisis on the hydropower sector and how developers and operators have responded. It also outlined recommendations to assist governments and international financial institutions as they developed their economic recovery plans.


IHA joined with IRENA and more than 100 organisations to issue a joint call for action urging policymakers to prioritise green growth as part of their Covid-19 recovery plans. The recommendations cover a range of priority actions to ensure a rapid and sustained economic recovery, promoting renewable solutions as well as the need for market and policy frameworks that support storage and flexibility - services which are provided by sustainable hydropower.

This was followed by statements coordinated by IHA with 16 international and national organisations representing hydropower companies, as well as global renewables associations under the banner of the International Renewable Energy Alliance (REN Alliance).


New guidance was released by the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Council, amending the Hydropower Sustainability Tools to underline the importance of hydropower projects achieving the ‘free, prior and informed consent’ of Indigenous communities.  

IHA’s 2020 Hydropower Status Report showcased the sector’s response to Covid-19 and its contribution to global decarbonisation efforts. The seventh edition of the flagship report showed electricity generation hit a record 4,306 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2019. Installed capacity reached 1,308 gigawatts (GW), as 50 countries and territories completed greenfield and upgrade projects.  


Senior hydropower industry CEOs met with the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) at a special dialogue convened by IHA. The group presented a united message on the need for sustainable hydropower as part of the energy mix for a green recovery.  

“Even more than other renewables, government policies and actions drive investment in the hydropower sector. A ‘green stimulus’ for low carbon technologies and hydropower infrastructure should be a key pillar of government-led recovery packages,” said IHA CEO Eddie Rich.


The World Bank is a major force in the development of renewable hydropower plants around the globe. It has applied the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) to eight of its projects across four regions, and worked to increase institutional knowledge among governments.  

In July the bank's staff took part in a first virtual training course organised by IHA. The event brought together around 40 employees working with the public and private sectors to learn how to use the tools to identify and mitigate risks when financing a hydropower project.

The course follows other recent collaborations between IHA and the World Bank including the development of a handbook on operations and maintenance strategies.


Gabon’s Dibwangui hydropower project was rated as an example of international good practice in sustainability design and planning following an independent assessment using the Hydropower Sustainability ESG Gap Analysis Tool.

Plans for the 15 megawatt plant in the central African country achieved globally recognised good practice across 11 environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance criteria examined in the study.


Hydropower stations constructed decades ago across Asia are in need of significant investment and upgrades to enhance their critical contribution to the region’s clean energy goals, according to new research published by IHA.

The study conducted for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) identified 66 hydropower stations across 19 countries that could be ripe for modernisation, at an estimated investment value of up to US$13.7bn.


The hydropower sector is confirmed as third largest renewables employer, with almost two million people working in the industry, according to a jobs report from IRENA. Despite its status as the world’s largest source of renewable energy and its “huge untapped potential”, IRENA says hydropower employment in 2019 was around six per cent lower than in 2018, as growth slowed and new projects were delayed in several countries.


IHA welcomed a “landmark” collaboration agreement between environmental groups and the U.S. hydropower sector, which recognised the need to tackle climate change with renewable energy while also preserving healthy rivers.  

The agreement outlined how the benefits of hydropower, including its energy storage potential, should be harnessed while protecting the ecology and environment of water systems. This will involve accelerating the development of hydropower technologies and the rehabilitation, retrofitting and removal of older dams.

IHA launched the Hydropower Sustainability Training Academy for educating sector practitioners on how to use the Hydropower Sustainability Tools and G-res Tool to achieve good practice in their hydropower developments to help ensure existing and future hydropower developments are sustainable.


Aiming to enhance the role of pumped storage hydropower in future energy systems, IHA launched the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower chaired by the US Department of Energy. The forum brings together 11 national governments, international financial institutions and over 70 organisations to help advance hydropower’s positions as a flexible, reliable storage solution in the energy mix.  

Hydropower projects around the world could soon be independently rated and certified for their sustainability performance, following a public consultation announcement.

If adopted, the Hydropower Sustainability Standard would apply a rating, or label, to projects of any size or stage of development. This would incentivise and recognise responsible project developers, and help investors, governments and communities understand which schemes meet international environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance requirements.

Happy birthday to IHA – the association celebrated its 25th anniversary on 16 November 2020. This was marked with the adoption of a new charter and the relaunch of our website. The charter symbolises the commitment of the association and its members to the responsible and sustainable development of hydropower.  

In late November, the XFLEX HYDRO project, a major EU-funded energy innovation initiative to demonstrate how smart hydropower technologies can deliver a low-carbon, reliable and resilient power system, published its first major report.

Flexible energy sources such as renewable hydropower are increasingly important to balance growing variable sources, primarily wind and solar power, in the power grid. The changing energy mix requires new short-term flexibility and system support services, known as ancillary services, which the XFLEX HYDRO initiative is demonstrating can be provided by new hydropower technologies.


As the world marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement on climate change, IHA united with over 100 leading renewable energy players – as members of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Coalition for Action – in a joint initiative calling on governments to correct course.  

“Green economic stimulus packages represent the best ever opportunity to make the step adjustment to the energy transition. Hydropower sits at the heart of the transition both through direct clean energy provision and providing flexibility and storage for variable renewables,” said IHA CEO Eddie Rich.

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