Hydropower Propaganda Disguised as Science

Peter Bosshard
Photo by Rich Beilfuss

The International Energy Agency (IEA) advises industrialized countries on energy policy and energy security. For decades, the organization has been beholden to the oil, gas, nuclear and hydropower industries. A Technology Roadmap on Hydropower published recently by the IEA reads like a propaganda piece by the dam industry. It calls for increased government subsidies, and consistently downplays the impacts and risks of hydropower projects.
The IEA published its new hydropower report as part of a series of energy sector roadmaps. Hydropower is a long established technology, and produces almost one sixth of the world’s electricity. The report asserts that the technology generates “much more [electricity] than wind, solar, geothermal and other sources combined,” and will remain “the major renewable electricity generation technology worldwide … for a long time.”

With thousands of projects built in past decades, hydropower still generates much more energy than renewable sources. Yet when it comes to creating new capacity to mitigate climate change, wind and solar energy have overtaken hydropower. In 2011, for example, 40 gigawatts of wind and 30 gigawatts of solar capacity came online, compared to 25 gigawatts for hydropower. The IEA, which has neglected renewable energy sources for years, is silent about this trend.

The IEA predicts that hydropower capacity will roughly double to 1,947 gigawatts by 2050. This would require the construction of thousands of new large dams. The biggest increases are expected to occur in China and other Asian countries and – at a much lower level – in Africa.

Dams ravage floodplains which are among the richest and most productive ecosystems on Earth. Freshwater systems such as rivers, wetlands and lakes are already more seriously affected by species extinction than any other major ecosystem, and dams are one of the main reasons for this. You would expect that a roadmap for the global expansion of hydropower would assess how much more damming freshwater ecosystems can absorb before they collapse. Yet the IEA skirts this question.

The new report acknowledges that hydropower plants “may significantly affect natural aquatic and terrestrial habitats.” Yet it asserts, without elaboration, that “all these effects can be mitigated by thorough flow-management programmes.” This contradicts the empirical evidence of the independent World Commission on Dams, which found that efforts to mitigate (rather than avoid) the environmental impacts of dams have usually failed.

The most attractive locations for dams have already been used, and doubling hydropower capacity would likely require the displacement of scores of millions of people. The report does not address the widespread impoverishment and misery that dam displacement has caused. Again without elaboration, it claims that “with careful planning and implementation these issues can be avoided, minimized, mitigated or compensated.”

The IEA report also downplays the amount of greenhouse gases produced by hydropower projects. Shallow tropical reservoirs can emit more greenhouse gases – particularly methane – than thermal power projects with an equal output of electricity. A peer-reviewed research paper estimates that such reservoir emissions may amount to 4% of all human climate impacts. The IEA report simply states that “some hydropower plants could contribute to GHG emissions.” It proposes measuring these emissions, but excludes the large emissions from deforestation caused by dam building in pristine forests.

The more intense droughts brought about by climate change will reduce the economic viability of hydropower dams, and the escalating floods will affect their safety. The new publication acknowledges that climate change can have “substantial” impacts on hydropower projects, but does not assess how these long-term changes will affect their economics. This puts a fundamental question mark behind the report’s ambitious expansion targets.

More than 40 countries – including the US, China, India and Brazil – offer subsidies and other incentives for hydropower projects. The IEA report proposes to expand such government support. Its recommendations include:

  • All countries with hydropower potential should prepare inventories, set targets for new projects and track their implementation.
  • Since neither the public nor private investors are keen on dam building, governments should “promote public and private acceptance of hydropower.”
  • Governments should “develop effective financial models to support the large number of appropriately sized hydro projects in developing regions.”
  • Governments should “streamline administrative processes [which include environmental assessments] to reduce the lead time for hydropower projects.”
  • Developers should follow sustainability guidelines and protocols, and “avoid, minimize, mitigate or compensate negative socio-economic and environmental impacts.” Yet the report does not even mention the framework of the World Commission on Dams, which provides the strongest guidelines on dam building.

The International Energy Agency has a long record of boosting conventional energy sources at the cost of renewables. Based on an analysis of forecasts about the development of wind power, the Energy Watch Group found in 2008 that the IEA was “by far the leading issuer of faulty predictions.”

The new report was prepared in close cooperation with the hydropower industry. The IEA authors consulted 34 experts for the publication, 29 of which work for hydropower companies and other institutions promoting the technology. It is no surprise that an industry lobby would prepare a biased and unscientific report. It is less clear why the IEA’s member governments would pay for and legitimize such a piece of propaganda.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard and tweets at www.twitter.com/PeterBosshard.