Renewable energy can achieve global climate and energy goals without damming the world’s remaining free flowing rivers
Launched on the eve of the World Hydropower Congress in Paris, Connected and Flowing: A renewable future for rivers, climate and people details the transformations that are already underway and how the world can capitalize on these opportunities to achieve sustainable power systems.
Thanks to the plunging costs of solar power, wind generation and storage technologies – as well as significant advances in energy efficiency and grid management – it is now possible for the world to expand electricity generation to provide power to the billion people who currently lack access, while drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and preserving tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometres of free-flowing rivers.
This is extremely evident in the Greater Mekong region, home to the Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong Rivers. The Mekong is the world’s most productive freshwater fishery and delivers vital sediments to the Mekong Delta, a crucial part of Vietnam’s economy and regional food security, and home to 21 million people.
Hydropower has been a primary source of electricity for Mekong countries, but studies show that a continuation of the current hydropower trajectory would cause the loss of nearly half of migratory fish biomass and result in more than half of the delta being underwater by the end of this century.
“The Mekong, Irrawaddy and Salween Rivers are critical for the food security, livelihoods and homes of millions of people and are home to iconic species like giant catfish and Irrawaddy dolphins,” said Marc Goichot, Water Lead for WWF-Greater Mekong. “By investing in solar and wind power now, we can provide power and income to those millions of people at a lower overall cost and without the dangerous side effects of large- scale dams like the proposed Sambor and Stung Treng dams.”
“We can not only envision a future where electricity systems are accessible, affordable and powering economies with a mix of renewable energy, we can now build that future,” said Jeff Opperman, WWF Freshwater Scientist and lead author on the report.“By accelerating the renewable energy revolution, we can secure a brighter future for people and nature with power systems that are low carbon, low cost and low impact.”
With contributions from multiple academics, the report found that accelerating the renewable energy development could prevent nearly 165,000 km of river channels from being fragmented, while still helping to limit global temperatures to below a rise of 1.5⁰ C. Along with tackling climate change, this would help slow the catastrophic decline in freshwater species populations, which have fallen by 83% since 1970.
Mark Lambrides, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Energy and Infrastructure said: “A key recommendation of last week’s landmark global assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services was for governments to protect and restore river connectivity. Here we show how, for the first time, the renewable energy revolution offers an opportunity to plan for the right mix of renewable sources in power systems, while avoiding fragmenting rivers, potentially displacing communities and contributing to the loss of freshwater fisheries that feed millions.”
The report comes days after a global study published in Nature revealed that just 37% of the world’s longest rivers remain free-flowing, with dams and reservoirs the leading cause of this connectivity loss.
While massive renewable energy development will not signal an end to hydropower development, it does herald a significant reduction in new dams and a shift towards low-impact projects, which support the expansion of solar and wind – such as retrofitting existing hydropower dams, adding turbines to non-powered dams, and off-channel pumped storage.
The potential of utility-scale, low-impact wind and solar – on converted lands, such as agricultural and degraded land and rooftops – represents the equivalent of 17 times the renewable energy targets that countries have committed to under the Paris Climate Agreement and should allow almost all countries to achieve power systems that are low carbon, low cost, and low impact on nature.
The report calls for governments to create competitive frameworks to accelerate the renewable revolution. Governments should also reassess their existing hydropower plans by factoring in the full value of rivers – including the ecosystem services they provide – and considering lower-impact alternatives. Meanwhile, developers and financiers should support more comprehensive planning to develop a pipeline of lower-risk projects.
Key facts and figures:
- Costs for solar and wind are now approaching US$0.05/kWh – comparable to the low end of the fossil fuel range and the average cost of hydropower.
- Renewable sources represented two-thirds of new global power generation capacity in 2018, led by wind and solar.
- The addition of hydropower capacity has been declining since 2013 due to the falling costs of competing technologies as well as a broader set of challenges, including high-profile cancellations, growing hydrological risks, cost and schedule over-runs, technical challenges, and increasing social resistance.The full Connected and Flowing: