Publication - The Changing Role of Hydropower: Challenges and Opportunities

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The Changing Role of Hydropower: Challenges and Opportunities
International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)
Published in
February 2023
Hydropower is already the largest source of renewable electricity and an

important part of energy systems worldwide. Whilst untapped hydropower potential is vast, strict and transparent sustainability criteria will have to be followed to ensure that hydropower development is truly sustainable. IRENA’s 1.5°C Scenario suggests that if the world is to completely decarbonize and meet the climate goals set in the Paris Agreement, hydropower installed capacity, including pumped storage hydropower, should more than double by 2050. This will require annual investments in hydropower to grow roughly fivefold. However, as hydropower projects can struggle to attract investment, governments, and decision-makers need to create a suitable business environment that will attract investors. Most hydropower potential lies in developing countries. Financing institutions need to work together with governments to overcome local risks and limitations, find common ground and start funneling much-needed investment into these regions and countries. Hydropower has high value based on its ability to provide flexible energy generation and other services, namely ancillary grid services, as well as water management and socio-economic benefits. However, this value is not always recognized by existing markets. Regulatory frameworks and markets should take all hydropower services into account to reduce misalignment between compensation and infrastructure needs. Attracting the nearly USD 100 billion needed in investments will require markets that support modern hydropower operations and value the wide range of hydro services appropriately. Most hydropower assets were built several decades ago to operate under different conditions to those of today. Changes and current trends in the power sector require both an acknowledgment of the value of hydropower, and a rethinking of its future role. The increasing need to integrate variable generation resources, such as solar and wind, will lead to greater demand for grid flexibility and balancing services, and for a change in the way hydropower plants are operated and maintained. The world’s hydropower fleet is aging and will need refurbishment. This need presents an opportunity to introduce new technologies and modernize plants to fit the requirements of today’s power systems. While hydropower is susceptible to climate risks, it can also be a source of resilience when projects are adequately planned. Existing plants will have to be assessed and retrofitted where necessary to account for increased climate

risks, and new projects will need to incorporate these risks in their design.