For centuries civilisations have taken advantage of the power of water. Once used by the Greeks for grinding wheat into flour, the water wheels of the past have been updated to today’s highly efficient turbines that generate electricity by spinning water.
Small hydropower, defined by installed capacity of up to 10 MW, is the backbone of electricity production in many countries in the European Union. Small hydropower is based on a simple process, taking advantage of the kinetic energy and pressure freed by falling water or rivers, canals, streams and water networks. The rushing water drives a turbine, which converts the water’s pressure and motion into mechanical energy, converted into electricity by a generator. The power of the scheme is proportional to the head (the difference between up- and downstream water levels), the discharge (the quantity of water which goes through the turbines in a given unit of time), and the efficiency of the turbine.
In 2006 there were nearly 21,000 SHP plants (SHPPs) in the EU-27 and if candidate countries as well as Norway, Switzerland, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro are included, the number of SHPPs increases to a total of nearly 23,000.
The installed capacity of EU-27 was more than 13,000 MW – or more than 15,000 MW if candidate countries, Norway, Switzerland, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro are included.
In 2006 the total electricity generation from SHP in EU-27 was more than 41,000 GWh, and if including candidate countries, Norway, Switzerland, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro, nearly 52,000 GWh. This means that in 2006 about 1.2% of the total electricity generated as well as 9% of the RES-E in EU-27 came from SHP. On average, in 2006, a SHPP in the EU-27 had a capacity of 0.6 MW and produced about 2.0 GWh.
The range of investment cost can vary from 1,000 €/kW (Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia) to 12,000 €/kW (Germany). In terms of average SHP production cost the range varies from 0.4 €cent/kWh (Bulgaria) to 17.4 €cents/kWh (Italy).
The benefits and relevance of hydropower for both the renewable energy and the energy sector are obvious. In particular, hydropower will play a key role in 2030 and 2050 through:
- Development of hybrid systems combining several technologies to guarantee the maximum energy production in the most efficient way.
- Development of multipurpose hydro plants with applications in the fields of drinking water supply systems, irrigation channels, flood control and protection, the creation of adjoining environmental areas, waste water treatment plants and recreational purposes
- Adding security and stability to the European grid thanks to the pump storage.
- Mitigating Climate Change: for example SHP production reduces greenhouse gases such as CO2 by 29,000,000 tons annually and sulphur dioxide by 108,000 tons annually.
- Supporting the development of rural areas by the installation on economically advantage conditions of SHP off-grid units.
Technology Specific Recommendations
Hydropower technology is already highly efficient and affordable (in terms of investment cost and internal rate of return); furthermore the technology has a long life span. Nevertheless, in order to achieve the forecasted vision of the sector for 2030 and 2050 or surpass these estimations the following issues must be tackled:
- Reconciling targets of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the RES Directive:The implementation of the WFD is currently restraining the present and future development of the sector, as the interpretation of the Directive at a national level is having direct consequences in terms of the approval of new projects and in terms of the allocation of concessions and permissions.
- Environmental measures: Hydropower needs a more objective approach from the environmental community and from stakeholders since current and future legislation could limit in a severe way the benefits of such a source of energy.
- Removal of administrative and regulatory barriers: Administrative procedures to get a hydropower plant operating are still one of the most important barriers for the sector. The long time periods required for obtaining licences, concessions and permissions discourage developers from bringing projects to an end. A more flexible, simple, centralised and homogeneous European system could ease the procedure.
- More attractive incentive regimes (especially in the new MS): Hydropower and in particular small units are currently benefiting from European support schemes. Nevertheless, in comparison to other renewables and comparing between countries, the level of support is not satisfactory in terms of cost-benefit and market competition.
- Need for proactive cooperation and better communication at a local level: In the case of hydropower projects, the rapid establishment of a participatory approach involving the different stakeholders affected by the realisation of the project and in particular the environmental and fishing community is a must for the future development of the sector.
- Investment in R&D and change of thinking: The hydropower technology of the next decades will evolve towards more sustainable solutions. However, in order to minimise the environmental impact while at the same time maximising electricity production, a change of thinking is required and investment in current and future R&D is highly recommended to explore and test different solutions.