It’s time to stop taking hydropower’s benefits for granted

The Svelgfoss hydroelectric plant was the world's second largest power plant when it was first built

By Pablo Valverde, Deputy CEO, IHA

In a recent conversation with one of our newest members, we were discussing IHA’s no-go commitment on World Heritage Sites.

“But wait”, they told me. “Two of our projects have been granted World Heritage Site status in recognition of their outstanding impact on Norwegian industrial history. What does this mean for our membership application?”.

It was a good reminder of the role that hydropower has played for over a century in helping local communities grow, develop their industries and raise their standard of living. The fact that the projects in question were built in 1907 and continue to operate today also highlights the point that when done sustainably, an investment in hydropower is a long-term investment in green, clean and affordable energy for generations.

We all need a reminder sometimes

Like many people living in Norway, the only time I’ve ever thought about the role that hydropower plays in our lives is when explaining to foreigners why we have so many electric vehicles on our roads (“we have cheap electricity thanks to hydropower, so it makes sense”), when finding the silver lining in a downpour (“bad for the garden party, but great for our next electricity bill!”) or when reminding family members to turn off the lights (“just because we have it doesn’t mean we need to waste it!”).

It wasn’t until I started working at the International Hydropower Association that I began to understand hydropower’s importance.

Not a one-trick pony

It’s not just that 40% of hydropower dams around the world provide additional services such as irrigation, flood control or recreation (although it was a surprise to realise that the Lake of the Ozarks, where I would often go water-skiing in high school, is in fact a hydropower reservoir).

What was most surprising was learning that without hydropower, investments in wind and solar will not – cannot – grow enough to replace carbon-based energy production.

"Without hydropower, investments in wind and solar will not – cannot – grow enough to replace carbon-based energy production."

Hydro's first hydroelectric power plants in Norway were built in 1907

Spinning turbines and water batteries

Did you know that unless your grid has sufficient turbines spinning to maintain a stable frequency and voltage level, the grid collapses? Either you use some of the electricity generated to spin turbines (yes, that actually happens!), or the turbines spin while generating electricity from coal, gas, nuclear power or, you guessed it, hydropower.

And did you know that we have had batteries since the 1890s (that’s not a typo) that are able to store massive amounts of energy for days, weeks, months and years – using only water?

What about this: did you know that every time there is a jump or drop in the demand and supply of electricity, a grid without hydropower will struggle to avoid blackouts without depending on carbon-based electricity generation?  

Will the green giant please stand up and be recognised?

Hydropower accounts for 16% of global production and generates more green electricity than all renewables combined. Every country that is anywhere close to producing 100% green electricity has a significant amount of hydropower providing the baseload.

"Every country that is anywhere close to producing 100% green electricity has a significant amount of hydropower providing the baseload."

And yet, ask anyone on the street to name two sources of renewable energy and even in Norway you are likely to hear “wind and solar”.

Life starts at 140. Everything before that is just training

Whilst our relationship with hydropower may have lasted for over a century, “the best is yet to come”. At least, that better be the case – the IEA and IRENA estimate we need to double hydropower production by 2050 if we’re going to have a chance to meet net zero!

The bad news is that we’re nowhere close to building enough hydropower today to meet these goals.

The good news is that it is in our power to change it. Hydropower can help us meet net-zero if:

- governments implement enabling policy frameworks;

- market incentives reflect hydropower’s value beyond electricity generation; and

- companies demonstrate that hydropower is being built sustainably.

Global Hydropower Day

This won’t happen unless we stop taking hydropower for granted, which is why we need a day to celebrate the positive impacts of sustainable hydropower on people and communities around the world.

Global Hydropower Day on 11 October is our chance. Let’s use it to celebrate “the grandmother of renewables” and look forward to the next 140 years!

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