Planning for Hydropower Resilience in a Changing Climate: A Four Step Approach to Addressing Risk

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31 May 2017
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A global survey of 50 companies found that 40% of hydropower operators see evidence of climate change already influencing their engineering and design measure to a large extent.  Yet most hydropower facility investors and operators do not consider future climate conditions, nor do energy planners adequately assess climate change risks in power planning.

Hydropower is growing rapidly worldwide 

Hydropower is growing rapidly worldwide as a clean and renewable energy source that helps countries enhance energy security and curb greenhouse gas emissions, depending on location.  In 2015, an estimated 33 gigawatts of hydropower capacity was put into operation around the globe.  For context, the typical capacity of a coal or gas fired power plant is around a gigawatt.

The benefits of hydropower are especially salient for smaller-scale hydro, given its smaller environmental and social footprint. New finance instruments, such as green bonds and payments for water services, along with engagement from multilateral agencies also make smaller-scale hydropower investment more attractive and feasible.  But what does a changing climate mean for hydropower?

Changing rainfall patterns, rising temperature, more frequent or intense droughts and extreme weather events, glacier and snowpack melt, sea level rise and resulting flooding all affect hydroelectricity generation capacity. Other ways that climate change impacts hydropower include damage to infrastructure and disruptions in service. Unless these risks are addressed, the intended hydropower benefits of improving energy access and security while reducing emissions relative to other power sources, may fall short.  This is particularly true if electricity grids must turn to traditional, carbon-intensive energy sources, such as coal-fired plants, when hydropower becomes constrained.

So, how do planners go about ensuring hydropower resilience? 

A 2015 survey found that 60 percent of utilities were developing partnerships with research institutions. Additionally, 52 percent are employing staff trained to address climate change considerations.

Planners should consider both climate risks and emissions reductions opportunities across energy supply and demand chains, along with interdependencies between variable renewable resources.  Planners and investors should evaluate the trade-offs of different investments in order to promote the resilience of individual hydropower plants and the power system as a whole.  Raising awareness about evolving vulnerabilities among planners, investors, managers, and operators is the first step in appropriate climate-resilient power sector planning.

For the many utilities that have not yet undertaken meaningful action—such as developing a climate risk management strategy, performing climate risk screening, or allocating budget to climate-proof assets—a new guide outlines a four-step approach to get planners started.

A four-step approach to addressing risk

Addressing Climate Vulnerability for Power System Resilience and Energy Security, developed by the RALI Project, explains how climate change affects hydropower and other power generation infrastructure and resources. A four-step approach outlines how these risks can be addressed at both the project and sector level:

(1) assess climate risks and vulnerabilities;
(2) identify, evaluate, and prioritise options to address climate risks;
(3) integrate climate change into project implementation, power planning, operations and maintenance; and
(4) monitor, evaluate, and adjust plans over time.

The paper helps power planners and investors better understand and manage climate risks to hydropower and power system performance.  It also provides a roadmap for planners and investors to follow in undertaking these steps.


Note: This blog is an edited version of a blog on the Climatelinks website. For more information on the paper, click here


The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.

Global Climate Change Knowledge Management Lead, United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
Climate Resiliency Senior Advisor, United States Agency for International Development (USAID)