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Controversial energy production alternatives: HYDROPOWER (2/2)

As part of Climate Reality Europe's "Path to Zero" program, we are hosting a series of workshops discussing the most controversial energy production alternatives to fossil fuels. The second event tackled the thorny issues of energy production from biomass and hydropower.

While The Climate Reality Project does recognize biomass and hydropower as potential solutions in the energy transition, it also insists that big questions remain concerning the sustainability criteria of these options. The presentations delivered during the workshop explored some of the controversies surrounding the categorization of biomass and hydropower as renewable sources of energy.

Hydropower country cases were introduced by Pamela Ravasio from Switzerland, an SME sustainability expert, and Djordje Samardzija, an aviation emissions expert and solar PV plant operator from Serbia.

Pamela Ravisio: The long history of small hydropower in Switzerland

Switzerland is a water-rich country and hydro has played an interesting role over time. In the early 1970s, around 90% of the country’s electricity was generated by hydro, although the proportion has since declined, particularly following the commissioning of nuclear power plants. Although the proportion of hydro-generated electricity has fallen to 57%, hydro remains Switzerland’s most relevant source of power and discussions are taking place across the country to strengthen its role again.

Pamela presented comparative maps of Switzerland illustrating the overlap between the wilder areas of the country, rich in vulnerable biodiversity, and the areas where hydropower plants exist. As it stands, the overlap is significant. Nearly two-thirds of electricity is produced in the country’s mountainous rivers, where the largest plants are based, and 11% comes from plants on rivers on Switzerland’s borders that are shared with the neighboring countries.

At the end of 2021, Switzerland had 682 “large-scale” hydropower plants (with an average capacity of 300 kilowatts per plant), producing an annual 37,172 gigawatt hours. Six hundred of these plants are fed by the country’s major rivers. However, small-scale hydropower production has a long history in Switzerland. In the early 20th century, Switzerland was dominated by small-scale hydro production. There were 7,000 small-scale plants in operation, typically for local supply, with many settlements or even factories generating their own electricity. Today, however, “only” 1,000 of these remain, providing just 10% of total hydropower production, although they are still significant in terms of landscape and biodiversity impact.

In Switzerland, “large-scale” plants are defined as having a capacity of more than 10 MW per hour, and these plants make up 90% of production. In the case of the largest plants, all of which are storage power stations of different types, existing natural landscape characteristics have been exploited to build the required infrastructure (channelling of rivers, dams etc.), often creating collateral damage, including the elimination of (historic) towns and causing a significant impact on local fauna and flora, including fish and wildlife .

Djordje Samardzija: The pros (and cons) of community protest

Djordje began by showing maps produced by the organization Save the Blue Heart of Europe, which illustrate how many of the hydropower plants planned in Serbia for the future are due to be built in protected areas.

On joining the Energy Community, Serbia agreed to a renewable energy target of 27% by 2020. To meet this target, the then Ministry of Energy, Development and Environmental Protection issued public calls to investors for more than 450 small hydropower plants in 2013 and 2014. With responsibility for both energy and environmental protection, the ministry aimed to promote small hydro as a renewable energy by offering a generous and uncapped feed-in tariff for all facilities. This meant a clear incentive for investors to opt for small hydro (rather than solar, for example, where the feed-in tariff was capped): the feed-in tariff meant they could recover their investment in 10 to 12 years, while hydropower technology is so robust and resilient that it can last for a hundred years.

The ministry’s plans were, however, flawed. Even if all the planned hydro plants were built, they would cover just 1.4% of total energy consumption, thus they did not provide a real option for meeting renewable energy targets. At the same time, there was huge potential for environmental damage, since the calls were based on old data from 1987 regarding water flow and land use. Due to climate change and disrupted precipitation patterns, real river flow was far lower than initially thought, so when the investors arrived at the location, they found they were unable to construct plants by diverting part of the river flow, as expected. Instead, they had to use the whole river, resulting in the disappearance of any river flow below the dam.

The most attractive location among investors was Stara Planina, a natural park rich in biodiversity, with 92 rare bird species, as well as fish and mammals that were threatened by the project. The riverbed here also contained scientifically significant dinosaur fossils, which were destroyed by the construction equipment. Communities were also exposed to the risk of flash floods, soil erosion and threats to fresh water supply. As the communities lost their livelihoods, local cultures and traditions also came under threat.

Members of the local population fought fiercely for their rivers, sometimes clashing violently with the investors and physically dismantling the dams. Peaceful protests all around Serbia also took place, forcing the government to reconsider. The experience led to the creation of an organized environmental movement supported by celebrities, while some of the movement’s leaders went on to become members of parliament, ensuring better environmental protection in Serbia. Similar protests were organized against air pollution in 2020, environmental degradation in 2020–2022, and poor mining practices in 2021–2022. The ultimate outcome was the provision in the newly adopted Renewable Energy Act (2021) forbidding the construction of small hydropower plants in protected areas.

Thanks to their determination and persistence, and with support throughout Serbia, locals from Stara Planina have managed to defend their rivers and communities. Now, the energy cooperative Elektropionir, together with the Stara Planina village communities of Temska and Dojkinci and the city of Pirot, intends to turn the page and demonstrate better ways of producing renewable energy. After the successful crowdfunding campaign “Solarna Stara,” Elektropionir will install the first community-owned solar power plants in Serbia, showing that energy can be produced in a decentralized and democratic way that benefits many, not just a small number of reckless investors.

Djordje highlighted how other countries in the region have had a similar experience: people in Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have all fought against small hydropower plants. However, because small hydropower plants were originally promoted by the ministry as renewable, the fight against them has also endangered real renewable projects, including solar and wind, unfortunately turning public opinion against legitimate and valuable investments.

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