There are multiple benefits associated with hydroelectricity, including increased energy security and sustainable economic growth, in addition to reduced or avoided greenhouse gas emissions, as hydroelectricity is a clean and renewable source of energy.
To address critical energy security issues, many developing countries have turned to hydro-electric power generation to meet increasing energy demands in their growing economies, while also gaining the climate co-benefits of clean, renewable power.
However, hydropower is not a silver bullet solution – it is highly sensitive to variations in weather and climate. For example, shifting rainfall patterns, increases in temperature, more frequent or intense incidence of droughts, extreme weather events, sea level rise, and resulting flooding and landslides can all affect hydropower generation capacity, damage infrastructure and disrupt service. Climate risks, if not adequately addressed in planning and operations, could drastically undermine hydropower investments.
At the October 19th Adaptation Community Meeting, Dr. Molly Hellmuth, the focal point on water for ICF’s Climate Adaptation and Resilience team, discussed climate risks to hydropower systems and demonstrated some tools that are available to manage those risks.
Based on her recent research, conducted under the USAID-funded RALI project, Dr. Hellmuth explained that part of the reason climate risks are not incorporated into power systems and project planning is low awareness of the impacts of climate and weather variability, lack of access to relevant data and information, and hesitation to adopt strategies that may have higher perceived costs than taking a business as usual approach.
One of the first steps toward addressing these challenges is conducting a climate vulnerability assessment to identify at-risk infrastructure, operations, assets, ecosystems or populations.
One resource to help with this process is USAID’s Hydropower Screening Tool (soon to be publicly available), which has been piloted in five Asian countries. Dr. Hellmuth shared her experience testing this tool in Vietnam, where the power utility used the tool to select environmental, financial and social objectives that were a priority for them, then assessed the impact (high, medium, low) of climate and non-climate stressors and institutional adaptive capacity on meeting those objectives. The tool then provides the user various recommendations based on the risks identified.
Identifying climate vulnerabilities of a power system is just the first step toward achieving a resilient power supply – also key is identifying and prioritizing adaptation options; securing finance and implementing identified adaptation options in planning processes, operations and maintenance; and then monitoring and evaluating performance. These steps are explored in detail in the RALI technical paper.
Dr. Hellmuth concluded that while consideration of climate risks in hydropower systems is at a very nascent stage, momentum is growing. “Increasingly investors, project planners and governments are realizing that climate risks could have very real implications, not only for the financial bottom line, but also for meeting objectives such as ensuring energy security,” which is critical to helping countries in their economic development.