Viewpoint: Take the Long View: Build Hydro Now!

There’s a story about an elderly gentleman who asks his gardener to plant a particular type of tree. Mindful of the man’s advanced age, the gardener responds, “But, Sir … It will take 100 years before the tree grows to be useful.” The gentleman replies, “Then plant it today!”

The imperative to do something now applies well to new hydro development, especially larger projects. For, if development of a prospective large project is not pursued in the near term, its development in the long term could be foreclosed. That’s because such projects require a substantial amount of land. And, while it may be affordable to acquire undeveloped land, it often will not be affordable to acquire the needed real estate as population and other land use pressures mount.

Less-developed regions with suitable natural resources can derive a host of benefits from the construction of large hydro projects. These are the type of projects that truly make a difference in national and regional economies. If undertaken at the right time during the progress of an area’s development, building such projects can be minimally disruptive.

An important result is that these new facilities often can provide a sustained boost to the local economy. The available power can stimulate a broad range of additional development. In the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S.’s Tennessee Valley Authority became famous for using hydropower to foster social and economic development. Worldwide, numerous additional instances illustrate the power of this mix.

In Brazil, activists are opposing proposed large hydro facilities, claiming that the projects are not needed … that it’s better to obtain additional electricity by upgrading existing hydro projects.

A colleague solicited my views on this Brazilian opposition. My response was that I believe it’s important to consider a longer view. That is, if basic hydro facilities are built now, they can always be improved or upgraded later. However, if they are not built now, opportunities for their future development could be foreclosed.

Strategy versus tactics
The decision to build new projects instead of merely improving existing facilities is a visionary strategy — a larger plan. Facility improvements and upgrading are a more tactical, business-as-usual undertaking.

The best course of action for a particular circumstance is often indisputably clear. In instances where the quite different alternatives of “building new” or “improving old” merit serious comparison, tilting the scale in favor of new facilities promises to yield greater and longer term benefits, both for owners and society at large.

Carl Vansant

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