Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Big Hydro Falls Behind

Big Hydro Falls Behind

The big hydro industry always used to consider the "new renewables" as
Mickey Mouse technologies that could never match the billions of kilowatt
hours humming through the lines linked up to world's megadams.

But times have changed. Big Hydro is learning that lots of small projects
can add up to a lot more juice than a small number of very big ones.

In 2002, new installations of wind power exceeded the capacity of new big
hydro for the first time ever. Wind power engineers installed more
megawatts than their big hydro competitors three times over the following
six years. And in 2009, it looks like wind power blew (so to speak) big
hydro right out of the water.

Solar installations are rising even faster than wind, but from a much
lower level. Solar installers added nearly half as many panels in 2009 as
the year before, making solar the world's fastest growing power source.

The 2009 wind and solar numbers come from BP's recently released
"Statistical Review of World Energy 2010." (The "Cost of Energy" blog
notes that the review provides "a veritable gusher of data and an undersea
volcano of graphs, all summarized in a blowout of an Excel spreadsheet.")

British Petroleum's review doesn't provide large hydro data and no 2009
data are available elsewhere. But data on trends in new big hydro capacity
from the last decade suggests that 2009 wind installations were likely at
least a quarter more than big hydro - and that the dammers will never
again get close to wind power's annual additions.

Of course the dam builders have been steadily blocking more and more
rivers every year for more than a century so today hydropower still
generates a lot more electricity each year than the wind or sun. But the
trend is definitely in favor of the new renewables rather the old and
often non-renewable (big hydro with reservoirs is not renewable because
reservoirs eventually get clogged with sediments).

Indeed the percentage of the world's electricity generated by hydropower
has fallen over the past decade from 19% in the 1990s to around 16% today.
(This declining hydrodependency means that the world's energy supply is
slowly becoming less vulnerable to climate-change induced droughts).

The fact that wind is now a bigger and more dynamic industry than hydro is
more than just symbolic of the times a changin'. It means that the new
renewables industries will increasingly have more economic and political
clout and that the lobbying power of Big Hydro will steadily wane. (It
also means that the new renewables industries will also inevitably be able
to wield their power in self-interested ways that are detrimental to the
greater good. Wind and solar executives can no doubt be just as corrupt
and greedy as can their hydro counterparts. But the technologies that they
push will not be as inherently destructive as river-wrecking and
community-evicting - and often greenhouse gas belching - big dams).

Of course by far the biggest part of our non-renewable electricity comes
from CO2-spewing coal. It is no exaggeration to call coal the great enemy
of humanity and life as we know it. So thank goodness that the era of big
coal, like the era of big river-wrecking hydro, may be gradually coming to
an end. Some solar industry executives believe their technology will be
generating electricity as cheaply as coal plants in a few years time - and
even the always-conservative International Energy Agency predicts solar as
being cost-competitive within a decade.

Given that the financial cost of big-dam hydroelectricity is in the same
ballpark as coal, solar is also going to soon be competitive with big
hydro dams. And given that it can easily take 7-10 years for the planning
and construction of a megadam, it means that dams currently in the
planning phase could find themselves financially obsolete from their first
day of operation.

The energy revolution is happening. We just need to do all we can to make
it happen as quickly as possible.

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