Trends show Europe's power industry is reducing its carbon intensity each year, with coal generation declining and contributions from wind, solar and gas increasing.
Estimates of electricity generated in 2019 show the balance was 40 per cent from all fossil fuels (15 per cent coal), 35 per cent from renewables and 25 per cent nuclear.
In capacity terms, well over 20 GW of wind and solar was added for another year running, far exceeding other sources.
Looking ahead, decarbonisation looks set to continue at pace, with the EU targeting 32 per cent of all final energy consumption to come from renewables by 2030, and further policy proposals under a new Green Deal. The outlook suggests Europe will increasingly rely on hydropower’s renewable and dispatchable generation as an essential source of supply.
Over the last five years hydropower has grown by around 10 GW (5 per cent) across the continent, beyond the EU-28.
Annual generation has been variable in different regions, with drier weather reducing output in southern countries over recent years. As an established sector in Europe, many of the main sites have already been developed, and in 2019 capacity remained relatively stable. However, there are a number of projects in the pipeline, and greenfield growth is expected around the fringes of the EU bloc. New pumped hydropower storage is another focus area, as well as modernisations or even expansions of existing sites.
Small-scale hydropower has also been identified for development, though faces environmental opposition in many countries. Hydropower featured in regional planning and policy updates released last year. For example, 12 proposed pumped storage projects were included in the European Commission’s recently updated list of cross-border Projects of Common Interest (PCIs).
Recommendations were also published as part of the EU Taxonomy for sustainable finance, in the form of guidance and eligibility criteria for investments into sectors. These support green growth and align with the EU’s net zero 2050 target, including hydropower.
Furthermore, the EU Commission launched research and innovation initiatives focusing on hydropower’s potential, including Hydropower Europe, XFLEX HYDRO (Hydropower Extending Power System Flexibility), and Hydroflex, which kicked-off in 2018.
Industry and governments have continued to invest in the hydropower sector. In Scandinavia, Norway’s hydropower capacity grew by 134 MW as a series of new small-scale projects opened in 2019. These include the 23 MW Nye Verma site in Rauma and others such as Nye Suvdøla, Holen, Søråni, and Vassenden. Sweden’s state-owned utility reported 200 GWh in efficiency improvements achieved last year for its hydro fleet and plans to add 600 MW from upgrades by 2023.
In the United Kingdom, refurbishment of the Ffestiniog pumped storage plant is moving ahead, with further pumped hydro planned in the UK as well as in Ireland. Last year milestones were reached in building the North Sea Link and NordLink, projects to interconnect Norway to the UK and Germany respectively to enable trading of renewable electricity.
Further north, plans were approved in Iceland to build a new hydro plant in the remote Strandir region, on Ófeigsfjörður fjord.
On the continental mainland, a new 240 MW Pelton turbine was inaugurated at La Coche pumped storage station in France, replacing old units and increasing the site’s capacity by 20 per cent.
Just over the border in Switzerland, construction of the 900 MW Nant de Drance pumped storage plant achieved first water fill, while 18 MW Murkraftwerk was commissioned in Austria alongside other small plants. There are plans to expand pumped storage in central Europe including Austria, and further east, for example in the Baltic states.
Modernising stations is currently the main focus in the Czech Republic, which has developed about 60 per cent of its domestic hydro potential; as has neighbouring Slovakia. In Italy, a deal was signed to install digital upgrades at 33 hydropower plants across the country.
Spain’s national grid, REE, recorded only 38 MW of growth in total hydropower capacity in 2019. Similarly no major additions were made in Portugal, but the 880 MW Gouvaes pumped storage plant is planned to boost capacity and forms part of the Tamega Hydroelectric Complex under construction. Projected growth in renewables over the next decade will mean both countries will increasingly need hydro both for its generation and flexibility services including storage.
In recent years south eastern Europe has gained attention for its significant hydropower potential, with sitesidentified for development right across the Balkans. Last year a concession and prequalification process was launched in North Macedonia for the proposed 333 MW Cebren hydropower project, seen to be key for the country’s energy future.
Modernisation programmes are also proceeding, such as the 240 MW Sestrimo project in Bulgaria and 1,056 MW Djerdap and 96 MW (planned 125 MW) Zvornik in Serbia, among others. Environmental concerns are however affecting hydro development in the region, especially for new hydro sites in sensitive and protected natural areas.
Last year the government of Montenegro halted new concession grants for small hydropower, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina an environmental permit was cancelled for the planned 93 MW Buk Bijela project on the river Drina. But other projects still retain broad consensus, and despite set-backs the governments continue to recognise the multiple benefits hydro provides.
Finally, in Turkey hydropower capacity rose by 145 MW and stood at 31 per cent of total national capacity at the end of 2019. Among several ongoing constructions, the Ilisu Dam achieved a milestone last year with the first water fill into its huge reservoir. Upon completion, its 1,200 MW hydropower plant will be the fourth largest in the country.
Picture: Floating photovoltaics at the Alto Rabagão pumped storage reservoir, Portugal. Credit: EDP.
This regional profile is featured in the 2020 Hydropower Status Report. Download the report: hydropower.org/statusreport
This profile was last updated in May 2020.