March 1, 2021

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A dam(n) obstacle for biodiversity

6 min read
There's tension over halting dam building to save nature, and the EU's green energy goals.

The EU has a hydropower problem.

It wants to become climate neutral by 2050, but the hydro dams that provide more than a third of the bloc’s clean energy have a negative impact on the environment. That’s leading to friction between the climate goal and efforts to preserve nature.

The tension is coming to a head thanks to a new U.N. report warning of the threat posed by the bloc’s aging dams. It says 3,000 of Europe’s 21,300 dams were built between 50 and 100 years ago and could be susceptible to climate change-related failure.

“Extreme weather events, especially floods, are expected to become more severe and frequent with the changing climate,” the report says, noting that the number of dam failures around the world has skyrocketed since 2005. “The increasing frequency and severity of such events can overwhelm the reservoir’s and dam’s design limits and undermine dam safety.”

The report is helping galvanize activists who want Europe to limit or phase out hydropower due to its impact on the environment.

Although hydropower accounted for 35 percent of the EU’s renewable energy mix in 2019, its effect on biodiversity has been considerable. Since 1970, migratory freshwater fish species have declined by 93 percent, while the European Environment Agency attributed the poor state of freshwater ecosystems to “energy-related pressures [and] hydropower installations.”

Claire Baffert, senior water policy officer with the environmental group WWF, said that while it was clear that the bloc needed low-carbon green energy, decarbonization couldn’t “come at the expense of biodiversity.”

But utilities argue that biodiversity can coexist with hydropower.

“Hydropower, the first of the renewable energies, is essential to the energy transition,” said a press officer for French energy major EDF, which operates a large number of dams across the bloc. “The flexibility, the storage capacity and the fact that we can easily steer hydropower make it a fundamental energy source to allow the integration of other renewable energies [in the mix] such as wind and solar power.”

Baffert argued that hydropower is at odds with the European Commission’s 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, which commits the bloc to restoring 25,000 kilometers of free-flowing rivers within the next decade to protect freshwater biodiversity.

“European rivers are the most fragmented in the world,” she said, adding that EU countries now drafting their river basin management plans for 2021-2027 under the EU Water Framework Directive could seize the moment to remove aging hydropower infrastructure and cancel some of the 8,785 dams that are planned or under construction.

“The development of new hydropower goes against the conservation of freshwater ecosystems and is largely irrelevant to the achievement of our climate and energy targets,” she said. “We’re not saying that hydropower has no role to play [in the EU energy transition],” she continued, but added, “it seems that wind and solar [energy] have lower negative impacts on biodiversity.”

Is this green?

Although most of Europe’s dams were built during a frenetic period of hydropower development in the 1960s and 70s, new hydropower projects continue to be approved in Southern and Eastern Europe, where governments have used the Horizon 2020 research program and its regional development funds, as well as loans from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to subsidize the schemes.

Small hydropower plants have also benefited from feed-in tariffs, which are exempt from EU state aid rules, as they’re designed to give investors long-term stability. Baffert said that drives damaging infrastructure while producing a negligible amount of electricity.

Francisco Ferreira, president of Zero, a Portuguese environmental NGO, said small dams “that make little sense” had choked up many of his country’s smaller tributaries, “where they have an outsized influence on the life and free function of our rivers.”

Ferreira also criticized pumped-storage hydropower stations, which are used to store water during periods of low demand and generate power during peak consumption, that were approved by the Portuguese government during the early 2000s.

“All dams destroy habitats irreversibly, but some can be justified if they really are necessary,” he said, adding that a positive example is Alentejo’s Alqueva dam — the largest in Western Europe — which is not only used to produce electricity but also to store water for farming and recreation.

“But to destroy a river and a habitat where the Iberian wolf and other species lived just to have a way to sell power for more during key consumption hours … that’s unconscionable,” he said.

Environmentalists are worried that instead of working to phase out hydropower, Brussels may end up giving it a boost with its Taxonomy Regulation, which is supposed to define which investments count as green. Although the technical expert group on sustainable finance tasked with advising the Commission on the regulation recommended excluding small dams with a capacity lower than 10 megawatts from the category of sustainable investments, Brussels left the proposal out of its draft taxonomy delegated act.

“We need European authorities to take a stand, because in the context of renewable energy, hydropower’s costs often outweigh the benefits,” said Ferreira. “We hope the Commission will take steps to ensure that it’s never considered a green source of power.”

A source of flexibility

EDF argues it’s preserving and restoring biodiversity around its dams. The EDF press officer explained that “various devices can be put in place to ensure ecological continuity for fish and sediments, such as the installation of fish passes, turbine stops during migration periods, bypass rivers,” and that the company works on conservation schemes with local authorities and green groups.

Brussels backs EDF’s position on the importance of water-generated electricity, saying that while environmental concerns are justified, hydropower is key to its decarbonization strategy.

“Given the enormity of the challenge posed by climate change, hydropower will continue to have a role amongst renewable energy sources,” a Commission spokesperson said, adding that “larger hydropower plants associated with reservoirs can in particular provide the flexibility needed to integrate other renewable energy sources.”

The spokesperson acknowledged that Brussels was “aware of the potentially negative environmental impact of hydropower, especially small hydropower scattered across entire river systems,” and added that it was “clear that this needs to be prevented or at least minimized.”

They also argued that the bloc’s rivers were already well protected thanks to the Water Framework Directive and the Habitats Directive.

“Hydropower plants must comply with the requirements of EU environmental legislation and can only be developed under the strict conditions imposed by it to avoid a negative impact on the status of water bodies or on protected habitats and species,” the spokesperson said, pointing out that the Commission had put out a guide to help countries continue to develop hydropower while respecting the bloc’s environmental rules, especially in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas.

The Commission is expected to present a guidance document in the coming months to help countries implement the Biodiversity Strategy’s river restoration objective.

Baffert said that wasn’t enough to solve the problem. “The impacts of hydropower can be reduced to a limited extent but can never be fully compensated for,” she warned.

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Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/a-damn-obstacle-for-biodiversity-hydro-dams-climate-neutral/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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