Water is a vital resource. As the first civilisations formed on the banks of rivers, we all have to agree that water is life. It is essential to humans, it is important for the environment and ecosystems and has a role in the food value chain. It is all interconnected: water provides huge benefits to people around the world, for farming, industry and producing energy, with the latter being particularly important for the race to carbon neutrality.
However, decades of unsustainable exploitation and use of water resources led to major changes and alterations. Urbanisation, agriculture and climate change are among the main drivers. But also, more recently, hydropower.
Hydropower: not only renewable but also sustainable
In an interview with CEENERGYNEWS in June 2020, Pascal Radue, President and CEO of GE’s Hydro Solutions for GE Renewable Energy said that if we want to reach our global decarbonisation goals, we will have to almost double the installed capacities for hydropower by 2050. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) expects 850 gigawatts (GW) of hydropower capacity to be installed by 2050.
“Hydropower is not needed only because of generating electricity but also because of storage and the flexibility to support solar and wind,” said Eddie Rich, CEO of the International Hydropower Association (IHA) during the online webinar, Sustainable hydropower in the Western Balkans.
“We know how much time we need to build hydropower plants so we need to start building them now,” he continued, mentioning Albania as an example of a country that cannot reach its net-zero goal without hydropower. “But we have to show hydropower is not only renewable but also sustainable so that we have no excuse for hydropower not to be aligned with environmental standards.”
Harm to the environment
On the occasion of World Water Day 2021, the United Nations launched a campaign to understand what water means to people. There was a very loud and clear message that everyone is responsible for protecting sources of drinking water. Participants also spoke about being careful about how we use water in our daily decisions and their concerns about water scarcity. This message was also about political action and how governments and authorities must do more to protect water sources. It is all interconnected. A holist picture as Alain Kilajian, Programme Lead at the IHA put it.
And indeed, despite acknowledging that water is crucial to human life, freshwater ecosystems are being lost at unprecedented rates. According to the Living Planet Report, populations of freshwater species have declined by 84 per cent since 1970.
In Europe, 60 per cent of rivers are in bad health, degraded and destroyed by hydropower dams, dykes, drainage canals, pollution, unsustainable sand and gravel extraction and poorly planned navigation infrastructure.
The EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030 aims to restore at least 25,000 kilometres of free-flowing rivers, by removing those barriers and restoring floodplains and wetlands.
Hydropower potential in CEE
However, we need hydropower. We just have to make it sustainable. According to the 2020 Hydropower Status Report published by the IHA, South-Eastern Europe has gained attention for its significant hydropower potential, especially in the Western Balkans.
In 2019, a concession and prequalification process was launched in North Macedonia for the proposed 333 megawatts (MW) Cebren hydropower project, seen to be key for the country’s energy future. Modernisation programmes are also proceeding, such as the 240 MW Sestrimo project in Bulgaria and 1,056 MW Djerdap and 96 MW (planned 125 MW) Zvornik in Serbia, among others. In Turkey, hydropower capacity rose by 145 MW and stood at 31 per cent of the total national capacity at the end of 2019. Among several ongoing constructions, the Ilisu Dam, with its 1,200 MW hydropower plant will be the fourth largest in the country.
Environmental concerns are however affecting hydro development in the region, especially for new hydro sites in sensitive and protected natural areas.
Last year the government of Montenegro halted new concession grants for small hydropower and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, an environmental permit was cancelled for the planned 93 MW Buk Bijela project on the river Drina.
Hydropower Sustainability Tools in the Western Balkans
WWF Adria a branch of the international NGO World Wide Fund (WWF), together with CEE Bankwatch, one of the largest networks of environmental NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe, are drawing attention to the Western Balkans’ region, home to some of the last free-flowing rivers in Europe and currently under attack. Around 2,700 small hydropower plants are planned across the region, threatening to destroy hundreds of free-flowing rivers and streams, losing more than 5,000 kilometres of pristine rivers.
Across Europe’s Western Balkans region, demand is growing for the reliable, pollution-free renewable energy that hydropower can provide. Yet local communities are divided over its merits.
To address such concerns, the IHA together with the Albanian Power Corporation (KESH) and the Swiss government’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) launched a new initiative in the Western Balkans designed to support authorities, investors and developers to implement international good practices in hydropower development.
“The aim is that hydropower in the region is developed sustainably and responsibly,” IHA Programme Lead Alain Kilajian explains. “Hydropower projects, like the Skavica project in Albania, have a key role to play in the clean energy transition. This is the case across the globe, including in the Western Balkans. The objective of the initiative is to build capacity among local stakeholders in Albania and the Western Balkans to help them meet their national emissions targets by building clean and sustainable hydropower projects while maintaining the health of their rivers and ecosystems.”
Through a combination of face-to-face workshops, e-learning and webinars, in-country and remote support, the programme is designed to support authorities, investors and developers to implement international good practices in hydropower development using the Hydropower Sustainability Tools.
“In its first year, the programme will be focused on assessing the sustainability performance of the Skavica project, in collaboration with the Albanian Power Corporation (KESH) and other national stakeholders,” he announces. “Skavica offers an opportunity to implement a project to the highest sustainability standards and can hopefully act as a model for sustainable hydropower development in the region. Ultimately, we hope this programme can provide a platform for key decision-makers and NGOs to discuss sustainability issues and widen awareness about the good practice requirements expected of all hydropower projects, and thus enhance the capacity within the region to build its clean energy supply in a responsible and sustainable manner.”
Currently, according to Mr Kilajian, one of the main challenges for national regulators is to understand whether a hydropower project is designed, built and operated following international good practice.
“Some countries only approve a new hydropower project every decade or so, and so you need to build institutional capacity to properly regulate and oversee the construction of new hydropower projects,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS. “That’s where the capacity building programme that we provide can be so valuable. It’s about training both hydropower developers and regulators on what constitutes minimum performance expectations across a range of issues, from construction and labour rights to safety standards and, where necessary, how best to engage with, compensate and resettle affected communities.”
Companies must incorporate social and environmental aspect into hydropower, making it more sustainable and there are already good examples to follow. Mr Kilajian mentions Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland which, in 2012, conducted a sustainability assessment of its Hvammur project in the southwest of the country using the Hydropower Sustainability Tools. The assessment identified areas for improvement in communication and consultation which prompted Landsvirkun to implement changes across the entirety of their projects.
“In the Western Balkans, an example of good practice in hydropower development is the Devoll project in Albania,” he states. “Devoll consists of two hydropower plants, Banjë (72MW) and Moglicë (184 MW). The project has implemented an extensive community engagement programme and has brought positive change to the Devoll valley through its environmental and social responsibility. Assessed with the Hydropower Sustainability Tools in 2016, Devoll was found to have met or exceeded basic good practice criteria across 16 sustainability topics.”
‘Provisioning’ services of water
Mr Kilajian also recalled other important aspects of water and hydropower in the Western Balkans. Protecting biodiversity is a not only crucial value in terms of its mitigation of climate change but it is also a cultural value and value for tourism, which is also linked to income.
“It is crucial that biodiversity is well managed and maybe even increased through ecological corridors that didn’t exist before,” he said during the online webinar.
“It’s incredibly important that hydropower projects are developed responsibly and sustainably, taking into consideration the local environment, agricultural needs and water catchments,” he adds. “This is as much about choosing an appropriate location as it is about enforcing certain expectations and standards for delivery. Thankfully robust sustainability guidelines and tools exist which help to ensure that hydropower projects can be developed per international good practice.”
We join his hope that moving forward, all renewable energies will put in place evidence-based and comprehensive standards to ensure clean energy development does not have to come at the expense of people and the planet.