Viewpoint: Pushing the Envelope for More Hydropower

“Pushing the envelope” – going beyond the boundaries of what is ordinarily thought to be possible – may become commonplace as the European Union (EU) struggles with the practicalities of meeting its new goals for renewable energy supply. In March 2007, the European Council, comprised of the leaders of EU nations, committed the EU to supplying 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The details of what’s implied by the soundbite “20% by 2020” remain unclear. Yet what is clear is that EU leaders intend to push for substantially more domestically-produced renewable energy. Over the next year or so, the EU must develop a workable implementation plan and obtain approval from the European Parliament.

Regardless of the ultimate shape of the plan, hydropower can be expected to play a key role. At present, nearly 120,000 mw of hydro supplies about 70% of the EU’s renewable electricity. And while the region has many hydro facilities, development potential is far from tapped out. There’s great opportunity for hydro to make substantial contributions.

Among the EU’s 27 member nations, some have largely taken advantage of their natural hydro resources. Others have limited hydro resources. Denmark, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Irish Republic, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom are not candidates for sizeable new hydro schemes. On the other hand, half of EU’s member nations have significant untapped potential. Some countries have low levels of hydro development in relation to their potential. These include Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland. Other countries – including Austria, France, Italy, Spain, and Sweden – have especially large endowments of hydro resources, which could provide many additional megawatts and terawatt-hours (twh).

Taken altogether, it seems reasonable to expect that the EU’s base of renewable hydropower could be expanded to provide as much as an additional 20,000 mw (and 88 twh annually) by 2020, contributing perhaps one third of the new renewable electricity needed [“20 gigawatts (of hydro) by 2020!”]. Additional mw (and twh) could come from enhancements to existing facilities.

In terms of what it takes to develop hydro, 2020 is not far away! Achieving 20,000 mw by 2020 would be ambitious, certainly beyond business as usual. Yet, as the EU develops its 20% by 2020 plan, its leaders can be confident that the hydro industry will be doing its homework to prepare for adding more hydro to the EU’s renewable energy portfolio.

Now, the EU’s leadership needs to get busy to put in place the policies and incentives that will be required for fueling the hydro industry’s contributions of valuable new renewable energy.

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