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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