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Europe is steadily moving towards a cleaner energy mix with renewable hydropower making an essential contribution to climate reduction targets
Hydropower installed capacity
254 GW (2020)
Pumped storage installed capacity
55 GW (2020)
Generation by hydropower
676 TWh (2020)

Hydropower continues to be a leading source of renewable energy in Europe, as the continent is transitioning towards a cleaner energy mix with contributions from wind and solar also increasing rapidly.

Hydropower capacity rose by 3 GW across the European region in 2020, made up mainly by new hydropower plants commissioned in Turkey and other additions in Norway and Albania. Generation from hydropower was almost 4 per cent higher in 2020 than the previous year, owing largely to increased production in the Nordics and Iberia.

Hafslund vammaåpning, Credit: Voith Hydro

Across the EU-27 countries, a key milestone was reached in 2020 as all renewables together generated more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time. This was achieved with continued growth in wind and solar generation, which is expected to almost triple by 2030, and falls in production from coal-fired production. Hydropower contributed a 13 per cent share of total electricity generated, underlining its major role in the EU’s energy mix. Developments in pumped storage hydropower and grid interconnection projects were also made last year as part of measures to ensure a more resilient and flexible energy system.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused demand to fall by 4 per cent across the EU in 2020. Its economic impact has spurred government action to support the recovery, with the EU launching a Recovery and Resilience Facility. EU countries can access funding through the facility by submitting national plans of investments and reforms, for which hydropower and other renewable projects are eligible.

Other EU policy developments include the EU Taxonomy regulation, which sets out criteria that different economic activities, including for hydropower, must meet to qualify as environmentally sustainable. In addition, the EU Green Deal was approved targeting green growth, environmental protections, and a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

Nedre Otta HPP, Norway, Credit: Andritz Hydro

Turkey’s hydropower capacity grew by almost 10 per cent in 2020, adding 2,480 MW with new reservoir storage and run-of-river projects entering into operation. The national Renewable Energy Support Scheme (YEKDEM) has helped bring forward large increases in renewable capacity, made up mainly by the hydropower additions. The incentive scheme also supports wind, geothermal, solar and biomass, and was originally due to expire on 31 December 2020, but was extended due to Covid-19.

The largest new addition was the 1,224 MW Ilisu hydropower plant, located in south eastern Turkey on the Tigris river. The year 2020 was a significant milestone for the project ending 13 years since construction initially began in 2007. The site will play a vital role producing power for over a million homes and providing irrigation for thousands of farmers, thanks to its large multi-purpose reservoir and six turbine generators. Three other hydropower projects commissioned last year include Cetin (429 MW), Alpaslan II (120 MW) and Lower Kaleköy (500 MW). Projects including Orta (16 MW), Kovanlık (19 MW) and several others of similar size also went into service, along with a further 19 smaller-scale projects. Full rehabilitations of 123 MW Mendelez and 58 MW Kilavuzlu hydropower plants were also completed.

In Scandinavia, meteorological conditions such as mild weather and high levels of precipitation resulted in large volumes of water inflow into reservoirs. This, coupled with the decrease in electricity demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic, caused record low electricity prices and major fluctuations over the course of 2020.

Norway continued to increase its hydropower capacity through medium project was commissioned; this is a replacement for six older hydropower plants and five older dams previously operating along the Romanche River near the Alps. The new site includes a dam and underground powerhouse, with much-reduced environmental and social impacts on the surrounding area. Elsewhere, modernisation programmes were completed at the 600 MW Zakucac project in Croatia and the 126 MW Zvornik project in Serbia. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa visited the Tâmega complex in 2020, a project under construction in the country’s northern region involving three new-build dams and hydropower plants (Gouvães, Daivões and Alto Tâmega). The complex on the Tâmega river will add up to 1,158 MW, and includes the 880 MW Gouvães pumped and small-scale developments, adding 324 MW in 2020. Notable stations include Nedre Otta (78 MW), Leikanger (77 MW) and Østerbo (48 MW), with consecutive growth over the years resulting in total installed hydropower capacity at 32,995 MW. Neighbouring Sweden, Finland and Denmark did not report significant growth in capacity in 2020.

The NordLink interconnector, a subsea high voltage (HVDC) grid transmission line between Norway and Germany, entered testing at the end of 2020. The project will link hydropower in Norway and wind energy in Germany, allowing the two countries to trade renewable electricity and thus improve energy security. In the UK, early in 2020 the Cruachan pumped storage hydropower station in Scotland was awarded a six-year synchronous compensation contract to provide system support services to the National Grid. Services will include inertia and reactive power, helping to keep the grid stable under rising levels of variable renewables.

Grand Maison, France. Credit: EDF

There were no major new hydropower additions in Western and Central Europe in 2020, although progress was made in several modernisation and construction programmes. In France, the 97 MW Romanche-Gavet project was commissioned; this is a replacement for six older hydropower plants and five older dams previously operating along the Romanche River near the Alps. The new site includes a dam and underground powerhouse, with much-reduced environmental and social impacts on the surrounding area. Elsewhere, modernisation programmes were completed at the 600 MW Zakucac project in Croatia and the 126 MW Zvornik project in Serbia.

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa visited the Tâmega complex in 2020, a project under construction in the country’s northern region involving three new-build dams and hydropower plants (Gouvães, Daivões and Alto Tâmega). The complex on the Tâmega river will add up to 1,158 MW, and includes the 880 MW Gouvães pumped storage plant, to help bolster the region’s grid operations and security. Another pumped storage plant close to full commissioning is the 900 MW Nant de Drance project in Switzerland.

In the Balkans, the 197 MW Moglice hydropower plant was commissioned in Albania on the Devoll river. The scheme includes an underground powerhouse and 167 metre asphalt core dam impounding its reservoir, the highest of its kind in the world. The project involved important investments in local communities, including roads, transmission, and social and environmental development programmes.

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