Hydropower Not Likely Under New Climate Future


Image via: Alaska in Pictures

Countries that have built dams as part of their "clean" energy future may have to rethink that future, thanks to climate change. As glaciers are melting faster and faster, the water just isn't there. In Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia, the UN IPCC has already identified the "the lack of water for hydropower as 'critical.'" Reuters reports that rapidly declining glaciers around the world may mean an end to hydropower and major changes for the more than one billion people who live in areas fed by glaciers. Switzerland, for example, relies on hydropower for about half of their energy supply. Melting glaciers are responsible for everything in the area from farming to cooling nuclear towers, in addition to moving hydropower turbines. Hydropower won't be the only thing to suffer in a glacier-free world. Earlier this year Matthew reported that scientists around the global are not just melting faster, but that their rate of melt is accelerating, meaning that we are losing glaciers way sooner than anyone predicted.

How does the hydropower industry plan for something like that? Not just the loss of glaciers, but the accelerating timeline they are looking at that is rapidly coming to a close. You can bet that they are keeping an eye on this. In Switzerland, for example, one study predicts that the country will go from 60% hydropower to 46% by 2035 due to a lack in rainfall, loss of glaciers and an increase in energy use. The hydroelectric industry is funding multiple studies, but trying to predict water resources in a changing environment is like trying to hit a moving target.

This also means that countries using hydropower to meet part of their climate goals may have to rethink that as the lack in meltwater translates to less power produced. And yet, there will still be winners in this losing battle. Norway, which produces almost 100% of its power from hydropower will actually get more rain and snow, even as their glaciers melt. No word on whether it will be enough to cover their hydropower needs. While the dams may not work as well for hydropower, they can be used as reservoirs to spread out water resources throughout the threatened region over the year.

Switzerland, for example, is already rethinking how to use its hydropower. Typically they store water up until September when winter is just around the corner and more energy will be needed for heating homes and buildings. In April the storage lakes are typically dry and, with summers getting drier and drier, water usage allotments will have to change. In the short-term, the melting glaciers will give more water for use in hydropower, but in the future the country will have to rely on rainfall to fill the storage lakes and manage their water resources differently. This is challenged by the energy industry which was recently liberalized and therefore there is a greater incentive to make money in the short term, rather than plan for dwindling supplies. Switzerland can also use "pumped storage power stations" to bring water to high reservoirs and release it only when demand increases. China, on the other hand, plans to build 20 more dams on the headwaters of the Yangtze River, despite a rapidly declining water source in the Himalayas.

These schemes only work if a country or industry have the ability to plan out into the future and also the resources to shift where their water supplies come from. If a nation doesn't have a fall-back "plan" like increased precipitation, they may have to turn to other energy production methods that might not be as "green" as hydropower. That is, unless they can use their muscle to force neighboring countries also dependent on the glaciers to help come up with (or finance) a solution.

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Tags: Global Climate Change | Natural Disasters