Hydropower Propaganda Disguised as Science
By Peter Bosshard
International Rivers, November 8, 2012
The International Energy Agency (IEA) advises industrialized countries
on energy policy and energy security. For decades, the organization has
been beholden to the oil, gas, nuclear and hydropower industries. A
Technology Roadmap on Hydropower published recently by the IEA reads
like a propaganda piece by the dam industry. It calls for increased
government subsidies, and consistently downplays the impacts and risks
of hydropower projects.
The IEA published its new hydropower report as part of a series of
energy sector roadmaps. Hydropower is a long established technology, and
produces almost one sixth of the world's electricity. The report asserts
that the technology generates "much more [electricity] than wind, solar,
geothermal and other sources combined," and will remain "the major
renewable electricity generation technology worldwide … for a long time."
With thousands of projects built in past decades, hydropower still
generates much more energy than renewable sources. Yet when it comes to
creating new capacity to mitigate climate change, wind and solar energy
have overtaken hydropower. In 2011, for example, 40 gigawatts of wind
and 30 gigawatts of solar capacity came online, compared to 25 gigawatts
for hydropower. The IEA, which has neglected renewable energy sources
for years, is silent about this trend.
The IEA predicts that hydropower capacity will roughly double to 1,947
gigawatts by 2050. This would require the construction of thousands of
new large dams. The biggest increases are expected to occur in China and
other Asian countries and - at a much lower level - in Africa.
Dams ravage floodplains which are among the richest and most productive
ecosystems on Earth. Freshwater systems such as rivers, wetlands and
lakes are already more seriously affected by species extinction than any
other major ecosystem, and dams are one of the main reasons for this.
You would expect that a roadmap for the global expansion of hydropower
would assess how much more damming freshwater ecosystems can absorb
before they collapse. Yet the IEA skirts this question.
The new report acknowledges that hydropower plants "may significantly
affect natural aquatic and terrestrial habitats." Yet it asserts,
without elaboration, that "all these effects can be mitigated by
thorough flow-management programmes." This contradicts the empirical
evidence of the independent World Commission on Dams, which found that
efforts to mitigate (rather than avoid) the environmental impacts of
dams have usually failed.
The most attractive locations for dams have already been used, and
doubling hydropower capacity would likely require the displacement of
scores of millions of people. The report does not address the widespread
impoverishment and misery that dam displacement has caused. Again
without elaboration, it claims that "with careful planning and
implementation these issues can be avoided, minimized, mitigated or
The IEA report also downplays the amount of greenhouse gases produced by
hydropower projects. Shallow tropical reservoirs can emit more
greenhouse gases - particularly methane - than thermal power projects
with an equal output of electricity. A peer-reviewed research paper
estimates that such reservoir emissions may amount to 4% of all human
climate impacts. The IEA report simply states that "some hydropower
plants could contribute to GHG emissions." It proposes measuring these
emissions, but excludes the large emissions from deforestation caused by
dam building in pristine forests.
The more intense droughts brought about by climate change will reduce
the economic viability of hydropower dams, and the escalating floods
will affect their safety. The new publication acknowledges that climate
change can have "substantial" impacts on hydropower projects, but does
not assess how these long-term changes will affect their economics. This
puts a fundamental question mark behind the report's ambitious expansion
More than 40 countries - including the US, China, India and Brazil -
offer subsidies and other incentives for hydropower projects. The IEA
report proposes to expand such government support. Its recommendations
. All countries with hydropower potential should prepare inventories,
set targets for new projects and track their implementation.
. Since neither the public nor private investors are keen on dam
building, governments should "promote public and private acceptance of
. Governments should "develop effective financial models to support the
large number of appropriately sized hydro projects in developing regions."
. Governments should "streamline administrative processes [which include
environmental assessments] to reduce the lead time for hydropower projects."
. Developers should follow sustainability guidelines and protocols, and
"avoid, minimize, mitigate or compensate negative socio-economic and
environmental impacts." Yet the report does not even mention the
framework of the World Commission on Dams, which provides the strongest
guidelines on dam building.
The International Energy Agency has a long record of boosting
conventional energy sources at the cost of renewables. Based on an
analysis of forecasts about the development of wind power, the Energy
Watch Group found in 2008 that the IEA was "by far the leading issuer of
The new report was prepared in close cooperation with the hydropower
industry. The IEA authors consulted 34 experts for the publication, 29
of which work for hydropower companies and other institutions promoting
the technology. It is no surprise that an industry lobby would prepare a
biased and unscientific report. It is less clear why the IEA's member
governments would pay for and legitimize such a piece of propaganda.
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