Planning for Hydropower Resilience in a Changing Climate: A Four Step Approach to Addressing Risk

By Amy Daniels, Molly Hellmuth

A global survey of 50 companies found that 40% of hydropower operators see evidence of climate change already influencing their engineering and design measure to a large extent.  Yet most hydropower facility investors and operators do not consider future climate conditions, nor do energy planners adequately assess climate change risks in power planning.

Hydropower is growing rapidly worldwide as a clean and renewable energy source that helps countries enhance energy security and curb greenhouse gas emissions, depending on location.  In 2015, an estimated 33 gigawats of hydropower capacity was put into operation around the globe.  For context, the typical capacity of a coal or gas fired power plant is around a gigawatt. 

The benefits of hydropower are especially salient for smaller-scale hydro, given its smaller environmental and social footprint. New finance instruments, such as green bonds and payments for water services, along with engagement from multilateral agencies also make smaller-scale hydropower investment more attractive and feasible.  But what does a changing climate mean for hydropower?

Changing rainfall patterns, rising temperature, more frequent or intense droughts and extreme weather events, glacier and snow-pack melt, sea level rise and resulting flooding all affect hydroelectricity generation capacity. Other ways that climate change impacts hydropower include damage to infrastructure and disruptions in service. Unless these risks are addressed, the intended hydropower benefits of improving energy access and security while reducing emissions relative to other power sources, may fall short.  This is particularly true if electricity grids must turn to traditional, carbon-intensive energy sources, such as coal-fired plants, when hydropower becomes constrained.

So, how do planners go about ensuring hydropower resilience?  A 2015 survey found that 60 percent of utilities were developing partnerships with research institutions. Additionally, 52 percent are employing staff trained to address climate change considerations. 
Planners should consider both climate risks and emissions reductions opportunities across energy supply and demand chains, along with interdependencies between variable renewable resources.  Planners and investors should evaluate the trade-offs of different investments in order to promote the resilience of individual hydropower plants and the power system as a whole.  Raising awareness about evolving vulnerabilities among planners, investors, managers, and operators is the first step in appropriate climate-resilient power sector planning.
For the many utilities that have not yet undertaken meaningful action—such as developing a climate risk management strategy, performing climate risk screening, or allocating budget to climate-proof assets—a new guide outlines a four step approach to get planners started.

Addressing Climate Vulnerability for Power System Resilience and Energy Security, developed by the RALI Project, explains how climate change affects hydropower and other power generation infrastructure and resources. A four-step approach outlines how these risks can be addressed at both the project and sector level:
(1) assess climate risks and vulnerabilities;
(2) identify, evaluate, and prioritize options to address climate risks;
(3) integrate climate change into project implementation, power planning, operations and maintenance; and
(4) monitor, evaluate, and adjust plans over time.

The paper helps power planners and investors better understand and manage climate risks to hydropower and power system performance.  It also provides a roadmap for planners and investors to follow in undertaking these steps.

Download the full paper here.

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Mitigation
Adaptation, Emissions, Low Emission Development, Climate Change, Climate Risk Management, Infrastructure, Mitigation, Monitoring and Evaluation, Resilience

Amy Daniels

Amy led the creation of Climatelinks and provides on-going vision for its content, organization, scope, and functionality. Amy manages the Climatelinks team and is doggedly passionate about climate science translation, capacity building and effective decision-support for a climate-resilient future. She is interested in expanding the availability and reach of technical assistance through technology. Amy brings a decade of international development experience from Latin America and beyond. She also spent more than four years with U.S. Forest Service Research where she led a national, multiagency effort to systematize the integration of climate simulations into agency processes and decision-support tools.

Molly Hellmuth headshot

Molly Hellmuth

Molly Hellmuth is the Climate Resiliency Senior Advisor for USAID’s Integrated Resource and Resilience Planning projects in Ghana and Tanzania. She is an international expert in water resources, climate risk management, and resilient development. She has over 20 years of international experience, and has developed climate risk management strategies, tools, models, and guidelines for various clients, including for USAID, the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the ASEAN Centre for Energy, the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the Western Electric Coordinating Council (WECC), and the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy (DOD, DOE), among others. She has provided guidance on building climate resilience in the power sector for the U.S. MCC and WECC, and has developed specific guidance on climate risk and resilience of hydropower plants for USAID, and DOE. She holds a PhD and M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Colorado-Boulder, a B.S. in Environmental Studies, and a B.A. in French.

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