Use and Capacity of Global Hydropower Increases

Global use of hydropower increased more than 5 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to new research published by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online publication. Hydropower use reached a record 3,427 terawatt-hours, or about 16.1 percent of global electricity consumption, by the end of 2010, continuing the rapid rate of increase experienced between 2003 and 2009.

The cost of hydropower is relatively low, making it a competitive source of renewable electricity. The average cost of electricity from a hydro plant larger than 10 megawatts is 3 to 5 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. Hydropower is also a flexible source of electricity since plants can be ramped up and down very quickly to adapt to changing energy demands. Yet there are many negative aspects associated with hydropower: for example, damming interrupts the flow of rivers and can harm local ecosystems, and building large dams and reservoirs often involves displacing people and wildlife and requires significant amounts of carbon-intensive cement.

China was the largest hydropower producer and is expected to continue to lead global hydro use in the coming years. The country produced 721 terawatt-hours in 2010, representing around 17 percent of domestic electricity use. China also had the highest installed hydropower capacity, with 213 gigawatts (GW) at the end of 2010. It added more hydro capacity than any other country, 16 GW in 2010, and plans to add 140 GW by 2015. This is equivalent to building about seven more dams the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam, currently the largest in the world.

Hydropower is produced in at least 150 countries but is concentrated in just a few countries and regions. The Asia-Pacific region generated roughly 32 percent of global hydropower in 2010. Africa produces the least hydropower, accounting for 3 percent of the world total, but is considered the region with the greatest potential for increased production.

In 2008, four countries—Albania, Bhutan, Lesotho, and Paraguay—generated all their electricity from hydropower, and 15 countries generated at least 90 percent of their electricity from hydro. Iceland, New Zealand, and Norway produce the most hydropower per capita.

Micro-hydropower, which is defined as a plant with an installed capacity of 100 kilowatt-hour (kWh) or less, has grown in importance over the last decade and can be an effective means of providing electricity to communities far from industrial centers. As of 2009, roughly 60 GW of small hydro was installed worldwide, accounting for less than 6 percent of the hydropower total. Small hydro is likely to expand, especially as populous countries like India continue to pursue rural electrification.

Further highlights from the study:

  • Five countries—China, Brazil, the United States, Canada, and Russia—accounted for approximately 52 percent of the world’s installed hydropower capacity in 2010.
  • There are now three hydropower plants larger than 10 GW: the Three Gorges Dam in China, Itaipu Hydroelectricity Power Plant in Brazil, and Guri Dam in Venezuela.
  • A total of $40–45 billion was invested in large hydropower projects worldwide in 2010.

New Worldwatch report calls for commitment to environmental sustainability in forming American economic policy

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute.

Entire sets of assumptions, beliefs, and practices will need to be overturned if the United States is to build a sustainable economy in the decades ahead, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States: The Need for Innovation and Leadership. The report assesses the country’s environmental record and calls for a broad range of policy innovations in the areas of renewable and non-renewable resource use, waste and pollution, and population growth that would help boost the sustainability of the U.S. economy while maintaining people’s overall well-being and quality of life.

The report notes that the country has a long tradition of environmental leadership, dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt, who established the U.S. National Park Service in 1916. During the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. became a world leader in environmental policy, establishing a series of progressive laws and institutions, including the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet U.S. leaders have lagged behind many other countries, including in Europe and Asia, in developing a more sustainable economic processes and energy infrastructure, according to the report. Although the technological and policy tools needed to create sustainable economic activity have advanced rapidly around the world, U.S. output continues to be bolstered by unsustainable practices such as closed loop recycling (recycling waste from one product to make another), heavy dependence on fossil fuels, disregard for renewable resources, and resource use that is strongly connected to economic growth.

“The United States once set the world standard in confronting its environmental problems—protecting wild lands, establishing an environmental protection agency, and acting assertively to limit pollution of all types,” noted Robert Engelman, Executive Director of Worldwatch. “Americans benefited economically and in many other ways from these efforts. Yet today the country’s government plays no role in global efforts to create sustainable societies. We need a powerful citizens’ movement to help policymakers see that any efforts to make the United States enduringly prosperous are doomed to fail so long as we forget that we are living on a finite planet and cannot change the laws of physics and biology to suit our ambitions.”

The report outlines a series of cogent and practicable policy measures that can be instituted today to put the United States on a more sustainable path. These include shifting from an income tax to a progressive consumption tax, creating more standard eco-labeling for products, encouraging more producer “take-back” opportunities, and promoting a more feasible renewable energy market. A deceleration of population growth will also make the creation of a sustainable economy far easier, the report notes.

Rising awareness of the environmental challenges facing our planet, as well as the focus on finding ways to bolster the American economy, presents policy makers with the opportunity to make important and far-reaching decisions. The question is whether the United States builds sustainable prosperity through prudent choices now, or declines into sustained impoverishment because it failed to steward its assets when it had the choice.

What do you think is the most important step governments can take to support sustainable economies?

Gary Gardner is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. Jenna Banning is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project of the Worldwatch Institute.

For the press release on the report, visit Worldwatch Institute's Press Room.

For more on the importance of developing a green economy, see “Officials cite sustainable agriculture as key to UN Green Economy Initiative,” “Worldwatch report focuses on China’s green future”  and “Rio+20: Creating Green Economies to Eradicate Poverty.”

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