More wind and solar capacity could save some of the world’s most important rivers

More wind and solar capacity could save some of the world’s most important rivers

By Jeff Opperman, Michele Thieme, Rafael Guevara Senga, Amit R. Dalal and Pramod Jain,

In parallel to the internet technology revolution there is another revolution taking place: the power generation industry is fast decarbonizing, moving inexorably from fossil fuels to low carbon sources; maintaining, or even improving, efficiency and reliability even as the leading generation sources are variable renewable energy (VRE). And although this revolution is generally framed as crucial for stabilizing the planet’s climate, it is poised to deliver another benefit: conservation of some of the planet’s most important rivers.

The proportion of global power generation represented by VRE, such as wind and solar power, has been rising rapidly since 2007. The share of non-hydro renewable energy in the fuel mix more than doubled during this period to over 13% in 2019, and this torrid rate of growth is expected to continue, according to IRENA’s Renewable Energy Statistics, 2020. And according to IEA’ Renewables 2020, Launch Presentation from November 10, 2020, global wind and solar PV’s combined installed capacity will surpass that of natural gas in 2023 and coal in 2024. Renewables will become the largest source of electricity generation in 2025.

This dramatic expansion of wind and solar has been driven by precipitously falling costs.  The cost of new wind and solar generation, on a levelized cost of energy basis, is now lower than that of new thermal and hydropower generation, and increasingly below the operating cost of existing thermal plants. However, the variable nature of generation from wind and solar can pose challenges to grids. 

An example of this situation is the “duck curve” phenomenon which occurs when the grid has a high penetration of solar power and requires large amount of ramping (of power) in the late afternoon and early evening hours.  Open-cycle gas generators provide this needed ramping within most grids dealing with this challenge, but these have a high cost of generation and also high emissions of greenhouse gases.

Existing hydropower plants can also help with this large ramp up power. For example, pumped storage hydropower and hydropower dams in cascades can be operated to provide flexible generation, supporting load following capacity, peaking capacity, ancillary services and other support.

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Depending on siting and operational rules, these types of existing hydropower also have the potential to minimize some impacts on rivers – e.g., from the flow alteration caused by rapid changes in hydropower generation.  Improvements in other energy storage technologies will also catalyze and accelerate the transition to grids dominated by wind and solar sources.  Overall, advances in storage and grid management are allowing wind and solar to be competitive resources for nascent and fast-growing energy markets.   

While it’s broadly recognized that a dramatic expansion of renewables is necessary to attain climate goals, this expansion also holds great potential to reduce negative impacts on rivers, and the communities and resources, such as fisheries, that depend on healthy, connected rivers. 

Hydropower is currently the leading source of renewable and low-carbon generation and while investment in new hydropower has been slowing since 2013, in several countries, new hydropower dams have been proposed that would result in major impacts on important rivers, including the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and the Amazon.  In these regions, a rapid transition to greater investment in wind and solar — along with advances in energy efficiency, storage and grid management — could allow countries to meet projected electricity demands without the tradeoffs necessary with hydropower sited in locations with high negative impacts, while still meeting climate goals.

Cambodia provides a clear example of the potential for expansion of solar power and grid investments to avoid high-impact hydropower. Cambodia’s power and utilities sectors are already on their way to a significant transformation in the energy mix.  However, the official power development plan still calls for additions of some 5 GW of mostly conventional sources over the next 10 years, including fossil fuels and hydropower dams on the Mekong River that would have major negative impacts on wildlife, communities, the downstream Mekong River Delta, and the largest freshwater fishery in the world. 

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Recent market activity already points to an expansion of solar power – the most recent auction managed by Asian Development Bank resulted in a tariff of 3.877 US cents/kWh for a 60 MW solar plant – making solar a highly competitive option.  A WWF analysis showed that solar PV with energy storage can play a significant role in meeting projected load in 2030, substituting for a large share of fossil fuels and hydropower. In fact, with planned grid investments, Cambodia could safely integrate 18-23% of variable renewable energy (coupled with 4-hour storage) over the next 10 years, offsetting the need for some 2.3GW of hydropower and fossil-based power plants.  Due in part to the rising competitiveness of solar—and to a drought that revealed the vulnerability of hydropower generation—Cambodia has suspended plans for two large hydropower dams on the Mekong.  

Even greater penetration from wind and solar will be made possible through programs that encourage distribution-level renewable energy and behind-the-meter installations.  Such distributed renewable generation, new digital grid control technologies and changing consumer expectations are creating a new energy world that is more complex, competitive and challenging, but with a potentially far smaller environmental footprint. We believe the best way forward is for governments to align their efforts around creation of a credible and well-structured renewable energy roadmap with the following features:

  1. Comprehensive wind and solar resource assessments that are regularly updated
  2. Capacity expansion planning that considers a range of options (generation, storage, grid management) and also considers the costs and benefits of different generation sources in terms of greenhouse gases and impacts on social and environmental resources. This can be coupled with studies to inform the siting of new generation to minimize impacts on communities and terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems.
  3. Designated Renewable Energy Zones where the governments can focus programs, incentives and trial various procurement methods.
  4. Development of policies related to renewable energy targets, technologies, risk mitigation tools, tariffs, and licensing.
  5. Development of grid integration plans that encompass upgrades to the network, system operations, flexible and reserves requirements, grid code, and VRE generation forecasting.
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But the pace of transition will vary considerably across different countries, and so WWF is working with government, the private sector, and communities to accelerate this transition to meet objectives for both climate and river conservation. 

In many emerging markets, the transition to grids dominated by renewables is coming faster than most people realize. For many utilities to thrive in this transformation, they will need to depend on a broad range of stakeholders to develop new capabilities, experiment with different business models and create a mindset centered around embracing new technologies and step-up digitalization efforts.  

For countries that pursue it, this commitment to collaboration and innovation will reap great rewards for economic development, the climate and their rivers.

About the Authors

Jeff Opperman – As global lead scientist for freshwater, Jeff works across the WWF network and with external partners to direct research that can strengthen conservation strategies and to integrate science into freshwater programs and projects.

Michele Thieme – Michele leads WWF’s work in protecting and building the resiliency of freshwater ecosystems. She brings the latest in conservation science to applied conservation projects, informing our actions in river and lake basins around the world.

Rafael Guevara Senga – Rafael is the Sustainable Energy Lead for the WWF Cambodia office and responsible for the development and implementation of energy and climate related policy and engagement with sector stakeholders and partners.

Amit R. Dalal – Amit is a Senior Energy Advisor with Innovative Wind Energy, Inc and brings more than twenty-five years’ experience in utility transformation, grid integration, renewable energy and digitization of power sector planning. 

Pramod Jain – Pramod is President of Innovative Wind Energy, Inc with more than twenty years of renewable energy engineering and implementation experience.  He has worked in more than a dozen emerging markets and is currently involved in grid integration efforts in SE Asia and Central Asia.