Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Is Hydropower Really Green?

Is Renewable Energy Really Green?
Guest post written by Kamala Vainy Pillai PhD
Forbes Opinion,
September 24, 2014

The global green rush to move away from fossil fuel dependence has
incontestably led to a plethora of renewable energy initiatives – some
sounding sexier and more appealing than others. From the traditional
renewable energy like hydropower, wind, solar and biofuel, today's
alternative renewable energies using disruptive technologies promises
innumerable avenues for a host of communities and nations. Anaerobic
digestion energy, biomass, geothermal, ocean energy such as ocean
thermal, tidal or wave energy, solar thermal and tower power
technologies are already joining the bandwagon of emerging stars. Yet,
are Renewables really green?

The concept of renewable energy generally denotes clean energy systems
that do not contribute to greenhouse gas emission (GHE) and climate
change. As renewables get into top gear, growing evidence of
non-inclusion of social conscience in the name of renewable energy
development as well as severe environmental damage is unmasking the dark
side of renewables.

In this article, we will look at hydropower. The global hydropower
market according to investment analysts is predicted to expand over the
next few years as a less risky and more popular clean energy. While the
predictions sound promising, controversies over mega hydropower dam
projects and its socio-environmental sustainability issues present
confounding facts. Mega hydro dams have been successful in Canada, the
United States and other industrialized nations; however, the same cannot
be said for the tropical regions. Deforestation and the flooding
(inundation) of thousands of hectares of rainforest for mega hydro dam
projects in the Amazon and Borneo, which represents the planet's largest
and oldest rainforests have received intense criticisms. According to
World Wildlife Fund (WWF), tropical rainforests which serve as our
planet's carbon sink, holds more than 210 gigatonnes of carbon.
Deforestation is responsible for more than 15% of greenhouse gas
emissions (GHG) – more than any other human activity put together, has a
potent impact on accelerating global warming. In the case of mega hydro
dams, the inundation (flooding) of tropical rainforest has triggered a
cataclysm. The slow decay of rich organic rainforest matter flooded in
the mega dam is expected to take centuries – consuming more oxygen at
any given time, inconvertibly leading to oxygen-deprivation and high
acidity of waters. This state has resulted in poor quality of drinking
water as well as for household use to communities downstream. Further,
due to the alterations of the composition and density of vectors,
incidences of public health problems are on the rise and even death or
extinction of animal and plant life as far as 100 km from the mega dam
site have been reported. In 2013, National Geographic expounded on the
extinction of endangered migratory fish in the upstream of mega dams in
most South American countries like Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay.
Similarly, in Asia, the rare Asian river dolphins like the Indus
dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins have become endangered by the
alterations of rivers for mega dams. Late August this year,
International Rivers launched "The State of the World's Rivers" the
first-of-its-kind interactive online database to illustrate the impacts
on the health of the world's river basins as a result of the mega dams.

Continued displacement of the planet's oldest and largest indigenous
communities in the rainforest region of the Amazon and Borneo has drawn
global attention and civil society accessions. With growing legal
disputes over indigenous land encroachments, mega dam hydro projects in
these regions have become controversial as well as complicated for clean
energy investors. The Belo Monte Dam, for instance, expected to be one
of the largest after the Three Gorges Dam in China and the
Brazilian-Paraguayan Itaipu Dam, continues to be legally disputed by the
Kayapos and indigenous communities who have been living there for
centuries. Displaced indigenous communities like the Penans, as a
result of the mega Bakun Hydro Dam in Borneo, are reported to be
experiencing emotional traumas as a result of the dispossession of their
lands and displacement from their centuries-old nomadic way of life.
Remote communities around these sites are reported to be still without
electricity, as the grids built mainly serve smelters and industrial
operations in the area.

One of the factors cited for this state of affair is the inefficient and
inequitable social and environmental impact assessment (SEIA) conducted
prior to these projects. It appears that the SEIA reports have endorsed
massive relocation of indigenous communities and offered limited or no
consideration of the irreversible impact on wildlife and ecosystems
downstream from the mega renewable energy sites. In 2012, in its
sourcebook for "Getting to Green" guideline, the World Bank reiterated
that too many environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are being
conducted by poorly trained EIA practitioners with limited capacity and
environmental information, leading to poor-quality reports.

Although international development funding agencies, energy companies
and governments have hit a hard wall due to stalled or underperforming
mega renewable projects, they assert that the above competing
perspectives would change over time with increased social and economic
benefits. An Oxford study published this year, present a confounding
verdict. The study which scientifically analyzed the economics of mega
dams from 1934 to 2007, included 245 projects in 65 countries, confirmed
that mega dams suffered cost overruns of 96 per cent. The Oxford
researches affirmed that even without social and environmental cost
consideration, the mega dams did not make economic sense. The
staggering findings are expected to have a significant implication on
the future of energy sector planning.

The deliberation propounds three pertinent points for renewable energy
proponents – firstly, large scale renewable energy projects may not be
as 'green and clean' as prophesied; secondly, with rising pluralism and
conscious green consumers, renewable energy projects would be subject to
greater scrutiny for societal and environmental impacts and hence,
should demonstrate greater social-environmental accountability; and
finally, the compelling findings on the mega hydro dams being uneconomic
with cost overruns which are too high to yield a positive return,
presents a new debate for the renewable energy outlook.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dams will not solve all Africa’s energy problems

Dams will not solve all Africa's energy problems
Opinion piece by Rudo Sanyanga
Business Day (South Africa), September 4, 2014

[This commentary also appeared in Swedish by Svenska Dagbladet on
September 3, 2014, at]

THE world's water experts convene in Stockholm on Thursday where King
Carl Gustav will present the city's Water Prize to John Briscoe, a
Harvard professor and former water manager at the World Bank. After many
years spent in the international water bureaucracy, Briscoe says he is
"controversial and proud of it". Indeed, the jury's choice raises
contentious questions about how best to manage water resources for the
shared benefit of all.

Since the turn of the century, John Briscoe has been the world's
pre-eminent crusader for large dams in Africa and other continents. In
the 20th century, Europe developed approximately 80 percent of its
hydropower potential, while Africa has still only exploited 8 percent of
its own. It would be hypocritical, Briscoe contends, to withhold funds
for more dam building in Africa now.

Africa has tried to follow Europe's path to industrial development
before. With funding and advice from the World Bank and other
institutions, newly independent governments built large dams that were
supposed to industrialise and modernise their countries in the 1960s and
1970s. The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta and
the Inga 1 and 2 dams on the Congo River are the most prominent examples
of this approach.

Mega-dams have not turned out to be a silver bullet, but a big albatross
on Africa's development. Their costs spiraled out of control creating
massive debt burdens, while their performance did not live up to the
expectations. Their benefits were concentrated on mining companies and
urban middle classes, while the rural population has been left high and
dry. Africa has become the world region that is most dependent on
hydropower. As rainfalls are becoming ever less reliable, this has made
the continent highly vulnerable to climate change.

In 2008, mining companies consumed more electricity than the whole
population in Sub-Saharan Africa. After tens of billions of dollars in
foreign aid have been spent on energy projects, 69 percent of the
continent's population continues to live in the dark. Prioritising the
needs of mining companies and big cities over the rural populations, the
World Bank's latest dam projects in Africa will further entrench this
energy apartheid.

Meanwhile, the communities which were displaced by the Kariba and Inga
dams continue to struggle for just compensation decades after the
projects were built. Because poor people pay the price but don't reap
the benefits of these investments, the independent World Commission on
Dams has found that dams "can effectively take a resource from one group
and allocate it to another". The Tonga people, who were displaced by the
Kariba Dam and suffered starvation as a consequence, have to this date
remained without clean water or electricity despite the huge reservoir
at their doorsteps.

Luckily solutions that don't sacrifice one group of people for the
benefits of another are available today. Wind, solar and geothermal
energy have become competitive with hydropower. Unlike large dams, these
energy sources don't depend on centralised electric grids, but can serve
the needs of the rural populations wherever they live. This is why the
International Energy Agency recommends that the bulk of foreign energy
aid be devoted to decentralised renewable energy sources if the goal of
sustainable energy for all by 2030 is to be met. A diverse,
decentralised portfolio of renewable energy projects will also make
African countries more resilient to climate change than putting all eggs
into the basket of a few mega-dams.

Just because Europe developed with large dams in the 20th century
doesn't mean Africa has to do the same today. In the telecom sector,
Africa has successfully leapfrogged Europe's landline model and relied
on cell phone companies to provide access to the majority of the
population. Like cell phone towers, wind, solar and micro-hydropower
projects can be built quickly, close to where people need them, and
without major environmental impacts.

Large dams may still make sense in specific situations, but Africa's
future is lit by the sun. We appreciate that John Briscoe has
reinvigorated an important debate about large dams. But we hope that in
the coming years, the Stockholm Water Prize will celebrate the solutions
of the future rather than the past.

A native of Zimbabwe, Rudo Sanyanga holds a Ph.D. in Aquatic Systems
Ecology from Stockholm University. She is the Africa Program Director of
International Rivers and is based in Pretoria.

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