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Hydropower: The only sustainable European energy transition

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The world is at a crucial turning point in the fight against climate change, where every decision and contribution count toward achieving the ambitious and necessary goal of climate neutrality by 2050 and limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C. In light of this well-established fact, hydropower appears to be an indispensable and forward-looking solution with development potential to shape Europe’s clean-energy future.

According to a recent study by the International Energy Agency (IEA), more efforts are needed, on a global scale, to recognize hydropower plants as a reliable backbone of clean energy systems and support them accordingly[i].

In the European Union, hydropower accounts for 32 percent of the renewable electricity generation and supplies 12 percent of the EU’s total electricity[ii] — a significant but still underexploited source in view not only of the challenges posed by climate change, but also regarding energy security and the increasing need for system flexibility.

1TWh of flexible hydropower enables the construction of at least 3.5TWh of intermittent wind or solar.

The backbone of an independent and fully decarbonized electricity system

The ever-increasing share of solar and wind power means that it becomes more challenging for our electricity grid to deliver constant power, especially when intermittent renewable energies are experiencing periods of low production.

Tignes Dam, France | via the EU Hydropower Alliance

In this quest, hydropower holds the answer by offering the much-needed flexibility and grid stabilization for the rollout of wind and solar.

1TWh of flexible hydropower enables the construction of at least 3.5TWh of intermittent wind or solar.

Given its characteristics, hydropower can help to meet the demand for flexibility in two ways. First, by generating electricity in a dispatchable way to cover demand during peak hours when other renewable energies are not available. Run-of-river can provide flexible production in the short-term and reservoir hydro can provide the same flexible production in longer intervals. Second, by providing electricity storage thanks to pumped storage power stations.

Today, pumped storage hydropower provides over 90 percent of Europe’s electricity storage capacity.

As such, hydropower facilitates the integration of large quantities of renewable electricity from intermittent sources by offering long-, medium- and short-term flexibility, including manageable storage on all these terms.

Today, pumped storage hydropower provides over 90 percent of Europe’s electricity storage capacity.

A local source for Europe’s energy security

In today’s tumultuous global environment, independence is more than a precious virtue — it’s a necessity. Hydropower embodies this independence. From design to construction, maintenance and operation, everything is done by using European technology and knowhow. Hydropower is based on a renewable, local resource: water. By harnessing the kinetic energy of moving water, neither its quality nor the quantity is compromised. These characteristics make hydropower central to achieving climate objectives, guaranteeing energy security and consolidating the European Union’s strategic autonomy.

Hydroelectric generation can be adjusted by opening or closing the ‘tap’ as required.

A solution for adapting to climate change

Extreme weather events are on the increase and, as well as trying to avoid them, we are collectively determined to deal with them. Acting as a shield against these extreme phenomena, hydropower plays an essential role in water management by regulating water resources during droughts and floods, thereby mitigating their catastrophic consequences.

Hydroelectric generation can be adjusted by opening or closing the ‘tap’ as required.

The presence of dams and reservoirs on a river makes it possible to manage the flow of water and thus reduce flood levels, as well as mitigating the impact of shortages or droughts.

During the winter, the volume of snow is measured regularly so that the arrival of meltwater in the reservoirs can be accurately predicted, and the necessary measures implemented in good time. Conversely, in times of drought, hydropower can both protect ecosystems and provide water for agriculture, industry and communities.

A mature technology that evolves in harmony with its environment

With over a century’s experience in distributed energy systems, hydropower has the advantage of being a mature technology that evolves in harmony with its environment. Hydroelectric experts know how to constantly and considerably improve the state of natural and aquatic environments, while increasing production.

In recent years, numerous projects have been launched to restore the ecological status and potential of water bodies, in particular continuity of rivers or renaturation of land. Fish passage systems, as an example, have been designed and installed on a multitude of European dams and in rivers. These initiatives establish migration routes and enhance the conservation of threatened fish species. In some cases, the generation units at these power stations have been refurbished and modernized, including through hybridization with photovoltaics, to maximize the use of the existing infrastructure.

These examples clearly show that increasing renewable energy generation and improving the protection of the natural environment go hand-in-hand when it comes to hydropower.

Decision-makers need to create an appropriate, reliable and sustainable economic, political and legal framework that values the assets and benefits of hydropower and encourages further investments.

How about improving the European framework for hydropower?

Still, a long-term political commitment is crucial to encourage the refurbishment, repowering and construction of new hydropower plants that will be needed for the future power system and the energy transition.

Decision-makers need to create an appropriate, reliable and sustainable economic, political and legal framework that values the assets and benefits of hydropower and encourages further investments, as being done for other renewable energy resources.

On this background, the EU Hydropower Alliance was launched on May 4 2023. Bringing together Europe’s largest hydropower owners and operators, with a total capacity of 111,534MW, the alliance’s mission is to promote the role of sustainable hydropower in a clean-energy future.

The EU Hydropower Alliance, with the support of the European Commission, is organizing its first high-level conference, scheduled for October 24. The event will be an excellent opportunity for stakeholders at European level to discuss further how to unlock the potential of hydropower, and its role in meeting environmental and social challenges.


[i] https://www.iea.org/energy-system/renewables/hydroelectricity#tracking

[ii] https://energy.ec.europa.eu/topics/renewable-energy/hydropower_en

The EU Hydropower Alliance:
EDF
EDP
ENEL
ENGIE
FORTUM
IBERDROLA
STATKRAFT
UNIPER

VATTENFAL
VERBUND

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