Global Proliferation of Small Hydropower Plants

Global Proliferation of Small Hydropower Plants

Increased societal demand for electricity has resulted in global proliferation of hydropower facilities, which harness and transform the energy of flowing water into a sustainable source of electricity.  However, increased public awareness about the socioeconomic costs of hydropower installations (e.g., greenhouse gas formation, decreased water quality and quantity, and decreased biodiversity) means that governments are moving away from construction of large hydropower installations and instead turning their attention to small hydropower plants.

A recent study published by FWI researchers Thiago Couto and Dr. Julian Olden (SAFS) estimates that 82,891 small hydropower plants (SHPs) are currently operational in 150 countries around the world and that construction of SHPs is on the rise due to governmental incentives, private investments, and simplified licensing processes.  Considerably more ubiquitous than large hydropower plants, SHPs collectively contribute just 11% of global electricity generation capacity based on hydropower.  SHPs are presumed to produce smaller socioeconomic costs because of their smaller size, but a growing body of literature suggests that SHPs are also ecologically impactful.

Couto and Olden suggest that weak and inconsistent regulatory oversight, with little consideration for environmental impacts, has facilitated the rapid expansion of SHPs all over the world.  Management policies consider only the generation capacity of a SHP—how much power it can produce under optimal hydrologic conditions—and neglect other factors like mode of operation, the degree of river flow alteration, impacts on habitat connectivity, and the cumulative ecological effects of multiple SHP installations on a single river, which inform and control socioeconomic impacts of SHPs.

With an additional 10,569 SHPs slated for construction worldwide, Couto and Olden argue for stricter management policies informed by ecological evidence for the socioeconomic impacts of SHPs.  Until stronger regulations are implemented, it might be wise to reconsider the current pace of global SHP proliferation.

You can read their full study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, here.

Additional media coverage of this publication can be found here.