Hydropower making waves in the renewable energy world
Hydroelectricity, generated through hydropower, is the oldest, most popular method of producing renewable energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “Water is currently the leading renewable energy source used by electric utilities to generate electric power.”
Several countries utilize hydroelectric power for a majority of their electric energy generation, such as Venezuela, Switzerland, Norway, Canada and Brazil. In 2009, China generated the highest net amount of hydroelectric power in the world, with Brazil, Canada and the U.S. following closely. According to the EIA, “Total generation from renewable resources increases by three percent annually.” The renewable share of world electricity generation is expected to grow a total of 23 percent between 2007 and 2035, with around 80 percent of the increase coming from hydroelectric power and wind power.
Hydropower Pros and Cons
The advantages of producing electricity via water include: zero greenhouse gas emissions and therefore zero pollution to the environment; consistent electricity production for many decades; repurposing for irrigation or recreational activities in the lakes; and the ability to stop production and use dams only when needed. Hydroelectricity is the only renewable energy that is capable of competing economically with fossil fuels. EIA believes, “Government policies or incentives often provide the primary economic motivation for construction of renewable generation facilities.”
Hydropower generation also presents a few disadvantages, such as: high costs for building dams; damage to natural environments from flooding over large areas of land; and potential geological damages.
Major Hydropower Projects
Itaipu Binacional is a project developed collaboratively by Brazil and Paraguay, which includes the Itaipu Dam, its hydroelectric power plant and the Itaipu Lake. The plant was built on the Paraná River, situated on the Brazil-Paraguay border. Construction of the Itaipu Dam was completed in 1982, and the power plant has been in operation since 1984. Itaipu Binacional is the world’s largest generator of clean, renewable energy. The total installed power capacity of the project is 14,000 megawatts from 20 generating units, supplying around 19 percent of the energy consumed in Brazil and 77 percent of the demand in Paraguay. According to Itaipu Binacional, “In 2009, the Itaipu power plant generated 91.651.808 megawatts per hour (MWh), the fourth highest in 25 years of power production.”
China Yangtze Power Co Ltd.
China Yangtze Power Co Ltd. is the largest hydropower corporation in China. The company owns and operates the Gezhouba Power Plant, which has a total installed capacity of 6,977 megawatts. Additionally, China Yangtze Power Co is responsible for managing six generating sets at the Three Gorges Power Plant, currently in operation. The total operational and management capacity of the company is 12,577 megawatts. Electricity generated by the hydro plants is sold to central China and the Guangdong Province. According to China Yangtze Power Co, “Depending on the construction of the Three Gorges Project and the development of the water resources at the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, the company will continue to commit itself to generating the hydropower-dominated clean electricity.”
Companhia Energética de São Paulo
Companhia Energética de São Paulo (CESP), the largest power generation company in São Paulo state and the third largest in Brazil, has six hydroelectric plants, and 57 generating units. The company’s total installed capacity is 7,445 megawatts, with 3,916 megawatts of assured power. Electrical generation from these plants accounts for up to ten percent of the national total. The company’s hydro plants distribute via two drainage basins, including the Paraná River basin, located in the western part of São Paulo state, and the Paraíba do Sul river basin, located in the east.
The Guri Dam
Located on the Caroni River in Bolívar State of Venezuela, the Guri Dam is considered one of the largest in the world. Also known as the Central Hidroeléctrica Simón Bolívar, the dam was developed in two parts, with construction concluded in 1986. The dam construction has been controversial, due to the destroyed environment resulting from the created lake. The Guri hydroelectric power station is situated in the Necuima Canyon, near the Caroní River’s mouth. As of 2009, the plant is the world’s third largest, with a generating capacity of 10,200 megawatts.
Grand Coulee Dam
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, “Grand Coulee Dam is the largest hydropower producer in the United States, with a total generating capacity of 6,809 megawatts. It is one of the top ten largest producers of electricity in the world.” The dam is located on the Columbia River in Washington State. The reservoir is named Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake, after the U.S. president who oversaw the development of the dam. MWAK constructed the dam’s foundation.
Industry movement with heat decarbonisation
It is estimated that the heat network market requires approximately £30 billion of investment by 2050 to meet the UK Government’s net zero targets, and the decarbonisation of heat has been highlighted as a particular challenge.
The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget states the UK should target 20% of UK heat demand through low-carbon heat networks by 2050 - but as with most discussions surrounding mass decarbonisation, even reaching that target won't be an easy task. In the UK approximately 40% of energy consumption and 20% of GHG emissions are due to the heating and hot water supply for buildings.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that globally, around half of all energy consumption is used for providing heat, mainly for homes and industry.
Source: Heat Trust
This week saw some positive movement, however, with gas distribution company SGN and UK renewable energy solutions provider Vital Energi announcing a 50:50 joint venture, which will create an Energy Services Company (ESCO) representing utility infrastructure and heat network providers.
This includes delivery of heat to developments planned by SGN’s property arm, SGN Place, and the local vicinities where there is a demand for low-carbon heat.
The objective is to supply new and existing residential, industrial and commercial facilities and development activity is already underway for two projects in Scotland and the South East, with another 20 in the pipeline. SGN is looking to develop alternative heat solutions alongside its core gas distribution business and expand into the growing district heating market, recognising the future of heat is likely to include a mix of technological solutions and energy sources.
Vital Energi is seeking to expand into asset ownership opportunities to complement its core design, build and operations businesses. The complementary skillsets of both organisations will offer a compelling proposition for developers, commercial and industrial users and public sector bodies seeking low-carbon heat solutions.
SGN’s Director of Commercial Services and Investments Marcus Hunt said: “Heat networks are likely to play an increasing role in the delivery of UK heat in the context of net zero. The creation of this joint venture with market-leading Vital Energi enables us to build a presence in this emerging market, delivering new heat infrastructure and supporting decarbonisation.”
Nick Gosling, Chief Strategy Officer at Vital Energi, said: “Combining the resources, expertise and know-how of both organisations will allow us to play a major role in delivering the UK’s transition to low and zero-carbon heat.”
In March, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) starting collaborating with Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) to decarbonise heat and power at Kirkwall Airport through green hydrogen technology. 2G Energy was selected to deliver a CHP plant which generates heat and electricity from 100% hydrogen.
Heat decarbonisation options
The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) highlights the following options for decarbonising heating.
Use renewable electricity to generate heat in the home. As power sector emissions fall, emissions associated with electric heating are decreasing rapidly.
Low carbon gases
Replace natural gas that most homes use for heating with hydrogen, which releases energy but not carbon dioxide, the only waste product is water. Biomethane is also an option as it produces less carbon than natural gas over a full lifecycle.
For hydrogen to work, the pipes in the national gas grid would need to be replaced and home boilers would need to be adapted or changed. This is possible but could incur considerable cost.
Biomethane is chemically identical to methane from natural gas, so is suited to existing infrastructure and appliances. It is unlikely, however, that it can be produced in sufficient quantities to replace fossil gas entirely.
A hybrid system combining both electrification and hydrogen is a third option. Here, heat pumps could be used to meet the majority of heat demand, with a (low carbon) gas boiler taking over in extremely cold weather. Advantages of this approach include helping establish a market for heat pumps while hydrogen is developed to displace natural gas in the hybrid system eventually, and the ability to call on hydrogen when heat demand is at its very highest.
Heat networks connect a central heat source to a number of buildings via a series of underground hot water pipes, and are popular in countries such as Denmark, where heat networks supply 63% of households. The Government expects the heat networks market in the UK to grow quickly to supply up to 20% of heat demand over the next decade or so, investing £320 million into its flagship Heat Networks Investment Project to help get this underway.
Heat networks work particularly well in built-up urban areas or industrial clusters where there is a large and concentrated demand for heat. Over time, it is thought that if the central heat source can be low carbon, then there is the opportunity to ensure that multiple homes and buildings are decarbonised at once.
Biomass can be used to reduce emissions when used instead of more polluting fuels like oil in off gas grid properties. Support for biomass boilers has been available since 2011 via the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), but take-up has been low.
Supply constraints also restrict the role that biomass – burning solid material such as wood – can play. In any case, according to the Committee on Climate Change, this resource may be better used in other sectors of the economy such as construction, where it provides carbon storage without the need for CCS and reduces demand for carbon-intensive materials such as steel and cement.
The Energy Transitions Commission (ETC)'s latest report sets out how rapidly increasing demand for bioresources could outstrip sustainable supply, undermining climate mitigation efforts and harming biodiversity, unless alternative zero-carbon options are rapidly scaled-up and use of bioresources carefully prioritised.
"Alternative zero-carbon solutions, such as clean electrification or hydrogen, must be developed rapidly to lessen the need for bio-based solutions," it states.
The overall decarbonisation of industry is another major challenge, especially among four sectors that contribute 45 percent of CO2 emissions: cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene, according to a McKinsey report.
The process demands reimagining production processes from scratch and redesigning existing sites with costly rebuilds or retrofits. Furthermore, companies that adopt low-carbon production processes will see a short- to mid-term increase in cost, ultimately placing them at an economic disadvantage in a competitive global commodities market.
Ken Hunnisett is Project Director for the Heat Network Investment Project (HNIP)’s delivery partner Triple Point, which is the delivery partner for the government's Heat Network Investment Project, which is responsible for investing up to £320million in strategic, low-carbon heat network projects across England and Wales.
He is calling for the urgent need to invest in the development of new heating infrastructure to support the nation’s decarbonisation effort. So far £165m of HNIP funds have prompted £421m CAPEX, providing more green jobs as the UK economy eases from the lows sustained from the pandemic.
Decarbonising the UK's heating infrastructure is critical if we are to reach our net-zero goals and it’s crucial that progress is made in this decisive decade, he added.
"Heat networks are a part of the lowest-cost pathway to decarbonising our homes and workplaces in the future but are also the bit of the jigsaw that we can be putting into place now," he said. "Penetration into the UK market is still low, despite heat representing 37% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, the largest single contributor by some way. Funding needs to be urgently directed towards reducing the environmental impact of the residential sector, particularly given the slow pace of the decline in residential emissions in comparison to those of business and transport."
Currently, just 3% of UK buildings are serviced by heat networks. "Further investment in this industry, using public and private funds, will not only drive wider sustainability targets but will boost the economy by providing more green jobs as the country emerges from the pandemic," he said.