Monday, September 27, 2021
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Extreme Weather Events Are Hurting Hydropower


When Brazil’s Mines and Energy Minister appeared on TV earlier this week to plead with citizens to reduce their energy consumption due to a drought-induced hydropower crisis, he was not alone. Brazil is just one of many energy-producing countries facing drought and other extreme weather conditions that are making hydropower production that much harder. 

In his appearance on Brazilian TV, Bento Albuquerque warned that Brazil is heading into a worse energy crisis than initially anticipated due to yet another record drought. As well as hindering agricultural and industrial activity, it is badly affecting energy production, with hydropower plants reaching their lowest level in 91 years. Experts warn that the drought could continue into 2022, meaning a long-term solution is needed to tackle the crisis.

Albuquerque stated this Tuesday, “The rainy season in the south was worse than expected. As a result, the reservoirs of our hydroelectric power plants in the southeast and midwest suffered a greater reduction than expected.”

In response to the growing crisis, the federal government is expected to call for electricity cuts of 20 percent across the country. The ministry will also increase energy prices in response to the drought, with consumers paying around 6.78 percent more for electricity from September. This is not an uncommon measure in Brazil following periods of drought due to the country’s reliance on hydropower. As Brazil’s main source of energy, hydropower provides around three-quarters of domestic electricity needs. 

Brazil’s annual rainfall has been decreasing over the last decade, making drought a more regular occurrence. This has had a knock-on effect on the water level of the Panara River Basin, which connects five states and has several hydroelectric dams that depend on it. Panara, which also connects Brazil to Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, is currently at a 77-year low.

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The hydroelectric power plant between Argentina and Paraguay, that feeds off Panara, is currently running at a capacity of just 50 percent due to low water levels. Freight transportation is also being hindered as filling goods ships to full capacity makes them face the risk of running aground.

Brazil has the largest installed hydropower capacity in South America, accounting for over 65 percent of the continent’s total capacity, and is the world’s third-biggest hydropower producer after China and Canada. 

However, it is not the only hydropower producer having to contend with drought to maintain production levels. Western U.S. drought is also threatening hydropower from dams. This summer California was forced to shut down one of its biggest hydropower plants due to the lack of water in the Lake Oroville reservoir to power its turbines.

In addition, China is facing record droughts, as it continues to recover from a last year’s drought in the southern Yunnan province. Earlier this year, China reimposed restrictions on metal producers in Yunnan over fears of worsening droughts in the region. Yunnan has been one of the worst-performing regions when it comes to meeting energy consumption targets this year, leading the Chinese government to impose curbs on use.

Scientists believe that droughts are going to become a regular occurrence as we face the effects of climate change at the global level. The irony is that a lack of water challenges the production of a major clean energy source needed to combat climate change. 

Conversely, several countries have faced other extreme weather phenomena, wreaking havoc on hydropower operations. Floods and debris from major storms in Malawi last year sent two hydropower stations offline, reducing output from 320 megawatts (MW) to 50 MW.

The IEA is encouraging countries across Africa to develop more hydropower projects to minimize the adverse effects of climate change. However, the organization also predicts more climate hazards across the region for the rest of the 21st century. While the IEA put forward a risk assessment and plans to develop Africa’s hydropower industry, many producers are put off from examples of drought and other weather events in countries like Brazil, China, and the USA. 

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The World Bank estimates that hydropower accounts for around 16 percent of world electricity generation, making it a vital energy source worldwide. In addition, hydropower accounts for around 70 percent of the world’s installed renewable power generation capacity. Therefore, when output from hydropower plants decreases, it forces countries around the world to rely on increased fossil fuel production as well as electricity cuts to bridge the gap.

Poor weather conditions leading to lower energy production could also cause large producer countries to increase their energy imports to meet demand. In Brazil, imports of LNG have surpassed the five-year average, according to the U.S. Energy Department. This reflects the country’s previous experiences when a multi-year drought from 2013 to 2015 forced Brazil to increase its natural gas consumption by 37 percent.

While hydropower is one of the most well-established clean energy sources in the world, more regular extreme weather events are greatly hindering production levels at the international level. Countries must respond to challenges posed to hydropower firstly by managing electricity use, but secondly by diversifying their clean energy projects to ensure that reliance does not once again fall on fossil fuels to bridge the gap.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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