Posted by: The ocean update | March 30, 2018

Renewable revolution can fundamentally alter energy-river equation (Republic of the Union of Myanmar)

A river dolphin surfaces in front of a fishing boat during cooperative fishing on the Irrawaddy River.

March 30th, 2018 (Jeff Opperman). What was supposed to be the highlight of my recent trip to Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River wasn’t happening.

But even though my lower back ached from an hour of hunching forward in a narrow canoe, my legs awkwardly jammed into the bow, I kept saying no when the guide asked if I wanted to head back.

And then it happened.

A group of river dolphins began surfacing in an arc around the other boat in our group.  A fisherman standing on its prow called out to them in a strange, guttural language.

Suddenly, a single dolphin jolted out of the water — backward — and wagged its tail vigorously : here, throw the net here.

And the fishermen did — because the dolphin had just told them where the fish were, after having herded them there :

Why solar panels could save the river dolphin—and alter our assumptions about hydropower

It was one of the most amazing things you can witness on a river.  And like many of those amazing things — Mekong catfish the size of grizzly bears, salmon so abundant they darken the water — the cooperative fishing between people and dolphins on the Irrawaddy may be slipping away, in part due to hydropower development.

But some things you’d never associate with dolphins might be coming to their rescue — and also redefining the future of the world’s rivers:

Solar power. And molten salt.

That’s because the global renewable revolution — solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids, and storage technologies such as batteries and molten salt — is today giving many countries an unprecedented range of options for meeting their growing electricity demands beyond hydropower…or in strategic coordination with it.

As countries develop, they seek reliable, domestic, low-cost electricity delivered from mature technologies. To date, that’s often spelled hydropower, by far the world’s largest source of renewable electricity. (In 2017, hydropower generated 17% of global electricity and 70% of global renewable electricity).

But while all energy development has social and environmental impacts, among renewables, those from hydropower can be particularly severe: think of the 1.3 million people displaced by the reservoir of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Hydropower projects also contributed to the dramatic decline of wild salmon across Europe and the United States as well as the looming extinction of river dolphins and giant catfish in the Mekong — along with a projected 40 percent loss of the Mekong’s fishery, the largest freshwater fishery in the world and one that sustains tens of millions of people.

The benefits of hydropower dams are often accompanied by these immense trade-offs, such as the loss of globally unique places and resources (including the sinking and shrinking of vitally important river deltas).  Governments have consistently been willing to accept these trade-offs because their needs for electricity were so great and other options so few.

But the renewable revolution is increasing those other options.

The new energy math: falling costs of generation and storage technologies = fewer hydropower trade-offs

The price of solar and wind continue to plummet faster than anyone predicted, with recent bids for both solar and wind projects in Mexico coming in at around 2 cents per kilowatt hour (the cheapest electricity on the planet).

Of course, the true cost of solar and wind has to factor the storage or backup generation needed to compensate for their variability — and until recently, hydropower itself has been one of the few storage options.

But storage technologies now seem to be following the same plummeting cost curve as wind and solar, with the cost of lithium ion batteries dropping by 90 percent in the past few years.  A Chilean power plant combining concentrating solar power and storage — using molten salt — recently offered a bid to provide 24-hour baseload electricity at less than 5 cents/kwh.

Expect more progress in the near future with companies likeTesla pursuing disruptive breakthroughs for storage.

These trends suggest that it’s time to rethink our assumptions about inevitable, intractable conflicts between energy development and healthy rivers.

The Irrawaddy had all the hallmarks of one of those conflicts: 2/3 of Myanmar’s citizens lack access to reliable electricity, and status quo projections assumed that the country’s large pool of untapped hydropower potential was the logical option to expand generation.

On the other hand, the Irrawaddy remained one of the only large free-flowing rivers in Asia, supporting impressive fish populations that contribute to the largest source of protein in the national diet. Not to mention its immense cultural values, including the cooperative fishing with dolphins.

Building the 30-plus dams in the planning pipeline would address the energy needs, but would not be compatible with maintaining the river’s fish productivity and many of its cultural values. The stalemate over the suspended Myistsone dam served as the opening salvo of a looming broader conflict.

A different path is emerging, highlighted in the recently released Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of hydropower in Myanmar, produced by Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Ministry of Electricity and Energy with support from the International Finance Corporation and the Australian government.  The SEA report recommended keeping the mainstem of the Irrawaddy River (and that of the parallel Salween River) as free-flowing, and focusing hydropower development on a set of tributary dams that would have lower impacts.

The generation gap between the 30 dams in status quo projections and the much smaller set of dams in the SEA can be filled through wind and solar backed up by hydropower and other forms of storage, as demonstrated in WWF’s 2016 “Power Sector Vision.”

This transition may already be underway elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Thailand has announced it would delay signing a power purchase agreement for Pak Beng, a 912-MW hydropower dam planned for the Mekong River in Laos, until it could revisit its energy plan, including an assessment of the potential for wind and solar.

These trends don’t mean an end to hydropower development. Rather, they signal a shift in its role.  For example, although other forms of storage are improving, hydropower will remain one of the most effective forms of storage to allow a greater proportion of wind and solar in a grid.

But the whole equation for energy development is rapidly changing — and solving that equation no longer requires accepting immense trade-offs because that’s what the math dictated.  With new variables, the math for the truly high impact dams may no longer balance.

The renewable revolution can bring low-cost, reliable electricity into balance with Mekong giant catfish, Irrawaddy dolphins, and the countless other species and people that depend on those healthy rivers.

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