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Public opinion the biggest obstacle to hydro expansion

Hydropower has the potential to provide an abundance of low-carbon energy, but public opposition is derailing its expansion

“Since the United Nations (UN) has been so strongly against hydropower it means many mainstream people say it’s probably bad without thinking about it,” said Torstein Dale Sjotveit, chief executive of Sarawak Energy. “No one comments about the enormous expansion of coal, in the middle of a discussion about carbon dioxide (CO2), yet every hydro project is criticised without really being based in fact.”

Global hydropower production was 3,288 terawatt hours (Twh) in 2008, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), around 16% of total electricity supply. This could be ramped up to 6,000 Twh in 2050, the agency said. Total global hydropower production could reach 16,400 Twh per year, the IEA said, with more than half being produced in China, the US, Russia, Brazil and Canada.

Peru, India, Indonesia, Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo could produce 2,500 Twh of this hydropower per year.

Hydropower is the most commonly used form of renewable energy. Its storage capabilities, either using reservoirs or pumping stations, make it a more reliable source of energy than wind or solar power. This is particularly helpful in coping with sudden fluctuations in electricity demand and to offset any supply loss from less flexible sources of energy.

Richard Taylor, executive director of the International Hydropower Association (IHA), said government support for new projects is also vital for their success.

“All political actors have to be committed to the project moving forward otherwise there are so many opportunities for stagnation,” said Taylor.

Industry leaders also emphasised that there were regional differences in terms of the challenges for developing hydropower.

“It’s very difficult to generalise whether hydropower is good or bad, sustainable or not. It’s a very country specific thing,” said Rae Kwon Chung, environment director at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

“Whenever any major (hydro) dam project is initiated the government has to present its ideas and there has to be a social consensus from the people around,” Chung said. “These things are very time consuming and there’s a lot of frustration from many people over issues like compensation.”

In May, a group of indigenous Malaysians protested outside the IHA World Congress over plans to build a dozen large hydropower dams in Sarawak. The group said construction of the 900 megawatt (MW) Murum Dam will flood 24,000 hectares of indigenous land and force the resettlement of several communities. Chung said there have also been protests against hydropower in South Korea, to the extent that the issue has now moved towards the top of the country’s political agenda.

“This has become not a local issue but a huge central government issue. It can easily flare up into a very different dimension,” he said.

Taylor added that the cost of developing hydropower was also an obstacle to development and any uncertainty over the local government’s level of support for projects discourages investment.

Construction costs for new hydropower projects are between $2 million and $4m per MW for projects with capacity of up to 300MW, the IEA said.

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