Big Hydro Falls Behind

Patrick McCully

Annual capacity additions of dam-based hydro and new renewables
Annual capacity additions of dam-based hydro and new renewables

I just blogged on the Huffington Post about how the global wind power industry is blowing big hydro right out of the water in terms of how many turbines it is installing every year.

In 2002, new installations of wind power worldwide exceeded the capacity of new big hydro for the first time ever. Wind power engineers installed more megawatts than their big hydro competitors three times over the following six years. [While no hydro data are yet available for 2009] data on trends in new big hydro capacity from the last decade suggests that 2009 wind installations were likely at least a quarter more than big hydro -- and that the dammers will never again get close to wind power's annual additions.

Solar installations are still far behind big hydro, but are rising even faster than wind. Solar installers added nearly half as many panels in 2009 as the year before, making solar the world's fastest growing power source.

The HuffPo doesn't allow bloggers to add graphics so here are the numbers in graph form, with some further analysis below. You can download an excel file with the raw data.

As can be seen from the graph the hydro numbers are highly variable, reflecting the "lumpy" nature of big hydro - a single major project can add several gigawatts in a year. The world's largest hydro project, China's Three Gorges Dam, will have a full capacity of 22.5 GW, whereas the world's largest wind farm, near Roscoe, Texas, has a capacity of 0.8 GW. (Although wind farms are growing in size and China is planning a 20 GW farm in Gansu province for completion by 2020).

Around 8 GW were added at Three Gorges between 2007 and 2008. Another 4.2 GW are to be added between 2011 and project completion in 2012. But with no new capacity being brought on-line in 2009 and 2010 at Three Gorges, it is likely that the amount of large hydro added this year and last will be lower than in 2008. China has a string of megadams upstream of Three Gorges that it intends to complete over the next decade. If all these projects are built this should keep the quantity of large hydro being installed in China through the 2010s at similar levels to the late 1990s. These Upper Yangtze dams plus other megadams under construction or planned in the Amazon and Himalayas mean the global amount of new hydro capacity being added may well remain around the higher levels of the 2000s, but there is unlikely to be a clear growth trend in large hydro. (And strong public opposition, decreasing economic competitiveness of large hydro versus the new renewables, and fears over climate change risks, should (hopefully) mean a trend of clear decline).

But the strong annual growth of wind and solar will continue. Wind, as we've seen, has already overtaken big hydro installations, and is forecast to continue rising at double-digit rates over the next decade. Projecting a conservative 30% annual growth rate for solar power indicates that solar installations (both photovoltaics and concentrating solar) will soar past big hydro by 2015 - only five years away!!

As I blogged on the HuffPo:

The fact that wind is now a bigger and more dynamic industry than hydro is more than just symbolic of the times a changin'. It means that the new renewables industries will increasingly have more economic and political clout and that the lobbying power of Big Hydro will steadily wane.

More information: