Research points to hydropower challenges

If measures are not taken, climate change could hamper hydropower production

Electricity: Parts of Southeast Asia, including Bhutan, could experience fall in electricity production because of decline in mean annual stream-flow if green house gas emissions continues to rise.

Scientists have examined the linkages between climate change, water resources, and electricity production on a global scale.

The results of the Power-generation System Vulnerability and Adaptation to Changes in Climate and Water Resources do not bode well for Bhutan.

The report estimates decrease in usable capacity or power production capacity of 61-74 percent of hydropower plants worldwide by 2050. The study predicts average annual reductions in power production of 1-4 percent.

“Hydropower and thermoelectric power plants rely on freshwater from rivers and streams,” said Michelle Van Vliet, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

According to the research that covered 25,515 hydropower systems the highest monthly reductions in power producing capacity could reach more than 30 percent.

Model projections show that climate change will impact water resources.

The research emphasises the argument that Bhutan needs to be cautious in putting all its eggs in the hydropower basket.

Critics, including the former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, said that Bhutan needs to pay attention to the impact of climate change on its hydropower projects.

Bhutan has hydropower potential of about 30,000MW, 24,000MW of which is technically feasible. Only about six percent (1,480MW) of the total has been exploited yet.

Hydropower supporters have say that the International Panel Climate Change reports do not predict imminent threats to the sector in the region. Irregularity and intensity variations that the reports predict will not make a huge impact on the sector.

They argue that the fact that only 10 percent of the rivers are being fed by glaciers, climate change will not pose serious challenge to hydropower plants.

However, Van Vliet, said: “We show that technological developments with increases in power plant efficiencies…would reduce the vulnerability to water constraints in most regions. Improved cross-sectoral water management during drought periods is of course also important.”

Currently, 17 percent hydropower contributes to total electricity production worldwide.

Tshering Palden

3 replies
  1. Development practitioner
    Development practitioner says:

    The question is not if we should harness hydropower. The main concern is how effectively we mitigate the risks. Can anyone (including experts from both countries intensely involved in power sector) tell us anticipated capacity factors of the Bhutanese run-of-the-river mega power plants down the line, say in 10, 15, 20 years from now, considering power-generation system vulnerabilities, seasonal as well as year to year, technological shortfall then and other human factors? The way we import power at the moment in winter gives us impression that the capacity factors of our power plants are low even now. The capacity factor risks can be mitigated to an extent by optimizing the sizes and types of power plants. Isn’t smaller run-of-the-river and reservoir projects combination with high capacity factors the better option? In terms of energy storage, power plant efficiency and energy security, the combination looks by far the better option. Shouldn’t capacity factor be one of the major considerations in feasibility study along with geotechnical, hydrological and environmental factors? I do not understand the rationale to go for major run-of-the-river power plants knowing high vulnerabilities!

    • Dimitri Mousko
      Dimitri Mousko says:

      I like very much your point:
      “Isn’t smaller run-of-the-river and reservoir projects combination with high capacity factors the better option?” This can be really a good way to increase availability of the local generated electricity.
      What about mini and micro hydro power plants? This can be also an answer. During my visit of Bhutan in October I saw a lot of small water sources which can give at least few kW. This should be enough for small communities.

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