Tag Archives: hydropower

Dams and Drought: the Amazon

The city of Itaituba on the banks of the Tapajós River. Image from wikipedia

The São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) project… would dam one of the last big unobstructed tributaries of the Amazon. The project would provide about a third of the hydropower that Brazil plans for the forthcoming decade, but it would also flood 376 square km (145 square miles) of land where the Munduruku hunt, fish and farm. “The Tapajós valley is our supermarket, our church, our office, our school, our home, our life,” explained Mr Kabá.

The tussle over the Tapajós dam is part of a bigger fight about Brazil’s energy future. SLT is an example of a new sort of hydropower project, which floods a smaller area than traditional dams and therefore ought to cause less disruption and environmental damage. The massive Itaipu dam on the border with Paraguay inundated an area nearly four times as large. But critics of hydropower say “run of river” projects like SLT, which use a river’s natural flow to turn turbines, do not work as well as advertised. Though less destructive than conventional dams, which require bigger reservoirs, they still provoke opposition from people like the Munduruku. Other energy sources, such as gas and wind, are becoming more competitive. Brazil has “an opportunity” to rethink its energy policies, says Paulo Pedrosa, an energy official.

Hydropower has long been Brazil’s main way of generating electricity. Most forecasts suggest it will remain so. The government intends to build more than 30 dams in the Amazon over the next three decades. 

Climate change may worsen the problem. Some climate models predict that river flows in large parts of the Amazon will fall by 30% in coming decades. Deforestation is delaying the onset of the rainy season in some areas by six days a decade, according to research published in Global Change Biology, a journal.   Drought can be expensive. In 2014 power from conventional dams dipped because of a dry spell, forcing electricity companies to buy from gas- and coal-powered generators at high spot prices. The risk of such fluctuations rises with run-of-river dams. Carlos Nobre, a former chief of research at the ministry of science, technology and innovation, thinks more frequent droughts will make future hydropower projects in the Amazon unprofitable.

Brazil’s potential for solar and wind energy is among the highest in the world. The government has promoted them with lavish tax breaks. In the blustery north-east, wind power overtook hydropower this year; wind turbines now generate 36% of the region’s electricity, up from 22% in 2015. The Energy Research Company, a firm linked to the energy ministry, expects renewable generating capacity apart from hydropower to double by 2024.

Generators fuelled by natural gas have been hurt by the subsidies lavished on renewable energy. But, though less climate-friendly than hydropower, they are beginning to compete with it as a source of steady baseload electricity. Brazil now produces gas in abundance as a by-product of pumping oil from its offshore wells. Its marginal cost of production is nearly zero. The future of baseload energy is “hydro-thermal”, rather than hydro alone, says Adriano Pires of the Brazilian Infrastructure Centre, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro.

Excerpts from Dams in the Amazon: Not in my valley, Economist,  Nov. 5, 2016

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The Price of Dams: Vietnam

Ya Ly dam spillway,Vietnam

Hydropower has boomed in Vietnam over the past decade and now generates more than a third of the country’s electricity. In 2013 the National Assembly reported that 268 hydropower projects were up and running, with a further 205 projects expected to be generating by 2017. They are helping to meet a national demand for energy that the authorities forecast will treble between 2010 and 2020. Other power sources are less promising, at least in the short run. A plan to build several nuclear reactors by 2030 is behind schedule, for example. And Vietnam’s coal reserves, mostly in the north, are not easy to get at.

Yet the hydropower boom comes at a price. Rivers and old-growth forests have been ravaged, and tens of thousands of villagers, often from ethnic minorities, displaced. Many have been resettled on poor ground. Those who have stayed are at risk of flash floods caused by faulty dam technology and inadequate oversight. Green Innovation and Development Centre, an environmental group in the capital, Hanoi, says shoddy dam construction is the norm, and developers ignore the question of whether their projects could trigger earthquakes…

Many hydro-electric companies are owned by or affiliated with Electricity Vietnam (EVN), the loss-making state power monopoly. Because hydropower is Vietnam’s cheapest source of electricity, EVN resists investing in measures such as dam-safety assessments that would further erode its financial position. As it is, even though environmental-impact assessments for hydropower projects are required, they are never published, according to the United Nations Development Programme….. Hydropower companies want to keep their mountain reservoirs as full as possible in order to generate as much electricity as Vietnam’s rivers allow. But that narrow focus can deprive farmers of irrigation in the dry season. And when heavy rains come in the summer and autumn, floodwaters cascade over the dam walls with little or no warning.

Hydropower in Vietnam: Full to bursting, Economist, Jan.10, 2015, at 35

Harnessing the Himalayas Rivers

Himalayas_Map

Himalayan rivers, fed by glacial meltwater and monsoon rain, offer an immense resource. They could spin turbines to light up swathes of energy-starved South Asia. Exports of electricity and power for Nepal’s own homes and factories could invigorate the dirt-poor economy. National income per person in Nepal was just $692 last year, below half the level for South Asia as a whole.

Walk uphill for a few hours with staff from GMR, an Indian firm that builds and runs hydropower stations, and the river’s potential becomes clear. An engineer points to grey gneiss and impossibly steep cliffs, describing plans for an 11.2km (7-mile) tunnel, 6 metres wide, to be blasted through the mountain. The river will flow through it, before tumbling 627 metres down a steel-lined pipe. The resulting jet—210 cubic metres of water each second—will run turbines that at their peak will generate 600MW of electricity.  The project would take five years and cost $1.2 billion. It could run for over a century—and produce nearly as much as all Nepal’s installed hydropower.

Trek on and more hydro plants, micro to mighty, appear on the Marsyangdi. Downstream, China’s Sinohydro is building a 50MW plant; blasting its own 5km-long tunnel to channel water to drive it. Nearby is a new German-built one. Upstream, rival Indian firms plan more. They expect to share a transmission line to ill-lit cities in India.

GMR officials in Delhi are most excited by another river, the Upper Karnali in west Nepal, which is due to get a 900MW plant. In September the firm and Nepal’s government agreed to build it for $1.4 billion, the biggest private investment Nepal has seen.

Relations between India and Nepal are improving. Narendra Modi helped in August as the first Indian prime minister in 17 years to bother with a bilateral visit. Urged by him, the countries also agreed in September to regulate power-trade over the border, which is crucial if commercial and other lenders are to fund a hydropower boom…. Another big Indian hydro firm agreed with Nepal’s government, on November 25th, to build a 900MW hydro scheme, in east Nepal, known as Arun 3. Research done for Britain’s Department for International Development suggests four big hydro projects could earn Nepal a total of $17 billion in the next 30 years—not bad considering its GDP last year was a mere $19 billion.

All Nepal’s rivers, if tapped, could feasibly produce about 40GW of clean energy—a sixth of India’s total installed capacity today. Add the rivers of Pakistan, Bhutan and north India and the total trebles.  Bhutan has made progress: 3GW of hydro plants are to be built to produce electricity exports. The three already generating produce 1GW out of a total of 1.5GW from hydro. These rely on Indian loans, expertise and labour….

A second reason, says Raghuveer Sharma of the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank), was radical change that opened India’s domestic power market a decade ago. Big private firms now generate and trade electricity there and look abroad for projects. India’s government also presses for energy connections over borders, partly for the sake of diplomacy. There has even been talk of exporting 1GW to Lahore, in Pakistan—but fraught relations between the two countries make that a distant dream.

An official in India’s power ministry says South Asia will have to triple its energy production over the next 20 years. Integrating power grids and letting firms trade electricity internationally would be a big help. It would expand market opportunities and allow more varied use of energy sources to help meet differing peak demand. Nepal could export to India in summer, for example, to run fans and air conditioners. India would export energy back uphill in winter when Nepali rivers dry and turbines stop spinning.

Governments that learn to handle energy investments by the billion might manage to attract other industries, too. Nepal’s abundant limestone, for example, would tempt cement producers once power supplies are sufficient. In the mountains, it is not only treks that are rewarding.

South Asia’s Hydro-Politics: Water in them hills, Economist, Nov. 29, 2014, at 38

Water Conflicts: Tajikistan versus Uzbekistan

vakhsh river, Tajikistan.  image from wkipedia

Rogun is both a town [in Tajikistan], some 100km (60 miles) from the capital, Dushanbe, and a long-stalled dream: to build the world’s tallest hydropower dam.  Dirt-poor but water-rich, Tajikistan hopes to sell electricity to Afghanistan and South Asia. In theory, the dam, 335 metres high, could save the country from poverty and isolation, doubling Tajikistan’s power-generating capacity. But the project seems quixotic, if not outright delusional: it would cost up to $6 billion (GDP in 2012 was about $7.6 billion); Uzbekistan, a big neighbour, is fiercely opposed; and the investment climate is clouded by corruption.

Plans for the dam were drawn up long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but were revived in the early 2000s as Tajikistan recovered from civil war. Each winter energy shortages shave an estimated 3% off GDP. Rogun will solve all problems, state propaganda and many Tajiks say.

But international donors struggle to trust Mr Rakhmon [Tajikistan’s president]. Two-fifths of Tajikistan’s electricity is diverted to a state-run aluminium smelter, TALCO. Each year, TALCO produces hundreds of millions of dollars in profits that are routed to a shell company in the British Virgin Islands. Mr Rakhmon personally oversees TALCO. Why does he not use that cash for his dam?

Central Asia’s energy and water resources were once run from Moscow. In summer upstream republics such as Tajikistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan released water from their dams to generate electricity and help irrigate downstream republics, such as Uzbekistan. So Tajikistan already boasts the world’s highest dam, the 300-metre Nurek, built in the 1970s. In winter Uzbekistan delivered gas. That deal broke down after independence. Mr Rakhmon and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov do not get along. It is the custom among autocrats in these parts.

Uzbekistan thinks Rogun would parch its cotton crop and give Tajikistan political leverage. In protest, Uzbekistan has halted gas sales to Tajikistan and blocked shipments of construction materials for Rogun. Mr Karimov has warned the dispute could lead to war.

Into this morass has waded the World Bank, sponsoring two three-year assessments of the project on condition that construction is suspended. When completed, probably later this year, the studies are expected to judge the project itself feasible, but to present nine other options—of differing heights and turbine capacities—that may offer better value.  But questioning the dam’s height does not go down well with Mr Rakhmon. In 2004 Russia offered to get RusAL, an aluminium giant, to build Rogun. But after RusAL said the dam should be 50 metres lower (and perhaps tried to muscle into TALCO), the president told them to leave…

Tajikistan cannot build Rogun alone. A brain drain has left it woefully ill-equipped to handle such a project. One of Rogun’s chief engineers, asked to confirm a few statistics, consults Wikipedia. The only realistic patrons for the project are outsiders who might be able to stomach the corruption, such as Russia or China. But neither wants to anger Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country, with its largest army.

Hydropower in Tajikistan: Folie de grandeur, Economist, July 27, 2013, at 36

Dams in Guyana: Blackstone, China and the Secretive Government

Amalia Project plan, Guyana, image from  Sithe Global

The government of Guyana wants to move forward with an $840m project at Amaila Falls, deep in the forested interior. At full capacity of 165MW, it could supply more power than Guyana’s present needs.  The lead developer is Sithe Global, part of the Blackstone Group. Sithe wants a guaranteed 19% return on its equity stake, and plans to start construction this year. China Railway First Group signed an engineering contract in September. The China Development Bank will lend most of the money. The Inter-American Development Bank has been asked to chip in $175m; the World Bank was initially involved, but has pulled out.

Amaila’s supporters point out that it will flood less than 55 square km (21 square miles). No villages will be displaced and little wildlife will be disturbed. Guyana would no longer rely on fossil fuels for electricity. After two decades, ownership would pass to the government, construction costs paid off.

Opponents worry that clean electricity will not come cheap. Guyana Power and Light (GPL), the state-owned electricity company, will pay about $100m a year to the Amaila consortium. Electricity bills are unlikely to fall (three people were killed last year in protests over electricity charges). And Amaila’s power may not be reliable. The El Niño weather pattern can bring a year-long drought. In normal years, the plant will run below capacity between October and April. GPL will have to pay for backup thermal power. The IMF has urged “careful consideration of the [financial] risks”.

Plans to build Amaila date from 1997, though Sithe only got involved in 2009. The estimated cost has risen steadily. An access road is unfinished. There is as yet no economic feasibility study for the project; when completed, the study will remain confidential, as is GPL’s outline power-purchase agreement. Opposition parties complain that the government is being “secretive” about Amaila. On April 24th they blocked funds for a government equity-stake in the project. If Amaila is as beneficial as its backers claim, an open debate might generate broader support for the project, and cut its $56m bill for political risk insurance.

Hydropower in Guyana: Shrouded in secrecy, Economist, May, 4, 2013, at 39

The Battery of Europe; Swiss hydroelectricity is not Green

Mauvoisin dam, Switzerland

Swiss energy companies are determined to turn the country into a ‘battery for Europe’. Vast investments are made in big-scale water power projects. But it is not certain they will eventually pay off.  With the decision for a nuclear shutdown, the spotlight in Switzerland and Germany has switched to renewable energy sources. In Germany there’s a massive boost to solar and wind energy production, while Switzerland’s energy companies focus on increasing their storage capacities in the Alps.  About 11 percent of Europe’s electricity flows through Switzerland. The Swiss electricity industry stresses the advantages of the country’s central location in Europe and its topography. On the European energy map, Swiss mountain lakes could function as a huge battery for unsteadily generated renewable energy, and generate high revenues.

Natural and artificial mountain lakes are an essential component of Switzerland’s energy supply. Water power makes up 57 percent of the country’s electricity production. Some of these lakes aren’t just natural water reservoirs though, but serve as basins for pumped-storage hydro power plants (PSPs).  The system is simple and has long been a good business. Throughout the day, cheap, spare electricity is bought on the market and then used to pump water from a lower reservoir to a basin further up the mountain. At times when demand for electricity is high, stored water is released and drives turbines that produce electricity, which can then be sold on the market for a higher price.  Currently, 11 such plants are running in Switzerland with a combined 1400 megawatt capacity. Three other projects are under construction, to increase Swiss pumped-storage capacity to 3500 megawatts by 2017. Two more PSPs are being planned: ‘Grimsel 3′ at the Grimsel Pass in the Bernese Alps and ‘Lago Bianco’ at the Bernina Pass in Grisons.

“The symbiosis between nature and technology has defined the character of this landscape,” writes the Grimsel region’s tourism agency. Ernst Baumberger, press officer at the regional energy company KWO looks at Grimsel through two lenses: while praising the region’s beauty, Baumberger points out that a plenty of precipitation, glaciation, rock as building ground and the immense altitude difference make it ideal for water power use. KWO put its first power plant at Grimsel in operation 80 years ago.  The company recently was licenced to implement its 1.2 billion Swiss francs project ‘KWOplus’, including the construction of a second PSP (‘Grimsel 3′). The plant will have a 660 megawatt capacity, which is about the power of an average Swiss nuclear plant. The plan is controversial, both politically and economically.

“Switzerland doesn’t need any additional PSPs. There’s neither a lack of batteries, nor a grid stability problem,” argues Jürg Buri, managing director of the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES). He says that no country operates as many flexible power stations as Switzerland….Environmental organisations say that mainly cheap electricity from coal and nuclear plants is used for the pumping and that during the process, about a quarter of the energy is lost. Even worse, at windy times, PSPs keep coal and nuclear plants running.  There’s nothing green about pumped-storage hydroelectricity anyway. “If today’s PSPs were supplied with clean energy, that business would be unprofitable,” Buri says. “The revenues of the peak current wouldn’t make up for the purchase price and the energy lost for pumping.”

According to the licence, KWO is obliged to run Grimsel 3 with as much renewable energy as “economically and technically possible.” No fixed share was defined however. KWO’s Baumberger stresses that in the long term, the company’s PSPs should run solely with green electricity. “However, the primary criteria will remain the profitability,” he adds.  While the energy company praises Grimsel 3 as an important contribution to the security of energy supply for the country, Jürg Buri claims that the pumped-storage business further strains transmission lines. “In fact, to run Grimsel 3, even more lines would have to be built, something which people often forget about….

The Swiss Association for Water Management (SWV) views investments in PSPs as risky and their profitability as volatile. At the Bernische Kraftwerke (BKW), which holds half of KWO’s shares and manages electricity trade, the media officer declines to comment on the prospects of pumped-storage hydroelectricity…

In contrast to environmental organisations, KWO’s Baumberger remains optimistic. He stresses that in the light of booming wind and solar energy in Europe, the demand for further storage capacities will grow. “What Switzerland so far offers in terms of energy storage is nothing but a drop in the ocean.”  While opinions on the future of Swiss pumped-storage hydroelectricity differ sharply, one thing seems sure: the industry’s prospects lie in the hands of European, not Swiss politicians and businessmen.

Excerpts from Ray Smith, Swiss Battery May Lose Power, IPS, Dec. 8, 2012

To Kill an Environmentalist

The killing of Chhut Vuthy has shaken Cambodia. A well-known environmentalist and founder of the Natural Resource Protection Group, he had travelled to Koh Kong province in the west of the country to try to film illegal loggers. He was in a heavily forested area near the construction of a 338-megawatt hydropower dam being built by China Huadian, one of China’s five biggest power generators. The project is one of four dams which have drawn widespread criticism because of adjacent logging, and the impact the dams could have on wildlife and the livelihoods of local villagers.

How Mr Chhut Vuthy was killed is not clear, but the official explanation has raised eyebrows. The Cambodian army claims that he was taking photographs without permission. He was confronted by a military police officer who demanded he hand over his camera. An argument followed, says the army. Guns went off, and when the officer realised he had killed the environmentalist, it says, he turned his AK-47 on himself, managing to pull the trigger twice to shoot himself in the stomach and chest.  Mr Chhut Vuthy’s family insists a third person was involved, and after his funeral on April 28th hundreds of family, friends and human-rights activists demanded a full inquiry along with assurances from the government that their safety would be guaranteed.  Two journalists were with Mr Chhut Vuthy when he was killed. A Canadian reporter and her Cambodian colleague say they did not see who pulled the trigger after their car was confronted by a group of soldiers. They ran into the bush and sought shelter with locals, but say they heard one of the soldiers say loudly in Khmer, “Just kill them both.”

Mr Chhut Vuthy’s death is the highest-profile killing in Cambodia since a trade union leader, Chea Vichea, was shot dead in 2004. Three women were also shot in February as they campaigned for better working conditions at a factory supplying Puma, a German sportswear company.All three survived, but the alleged gunman, Chhouk Bandith, a district governor, was arrested only after local media reported that he was being hidden by politically connected friends. He was charged with causing “unintentional injuries”.

Cambodia: Blood trail, Economist, May 5, 2012, at 43