Big, Bad Hydro ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Forbes has a somewhat jaundiced look at the resurgence of big hydropower projects and looks at some better modern alternatives.

Chilean Patagonia is renowned for its rugged beauty: windswept Andean peaks, roaring rivers, pristine coastal rainforests. Years ago, those natural wonders inspired architect Peter Hartmann to abandon his native Santiago for Coyhaique, a small regional capital tucked away in a picturesque mountain valley.

"My family used to live near the biggest underground copper mine in the world, on the outskirts of Santiago, so I knew about environmental destruction firsthand," he says. "I came here for the forests, the lakes and the rivers--all untouched."

But the industrial world has caught up to Hartmann, and to Patagonia. To feed Santiago's growing demand for electricity, the Spanish-based energy giant Endesa (nyse: ELE - news - people ) wants to build a series of dams on two major Patagonian rivers. Endesa and the Chilean government say the $4 billion project will provide 2,430 megawatts of much-needed power to the nation's industrial north.

Hartmann and many of his neighbors are fighting the dams, claiming they would damage the southern region's ranching and tourism economies. For Hartmann, the irony is bitter: Endesa would send the power 1,500 miles north to the very mines that he came to Coyhaique to escape--and the whole thing's being done in the name of green power.

These are tough times for Hartmann and other opponents of big hydro. As the world scrambles to embrace green energy, the hydroelectric industry is enjoying a massive resurgence. American hydro is ramping up--projects totaling nearly 9,000 megawatts of capacity, much of it in next-generation wave- and tidal-power projects that convert ocean motion into electricity, are now in the permit pipeline at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The real action, though, is still in conventional dams, and it is happening abroad, mainly in Asia and Latin America. The high price of oil and surging demand for non-carbon fuels have energy executives dusting off old plans for major dams. "The last four years have been unprecedented in terms of orders for hydropower services and equipment," says Richard Taylor, executive director of the International Hydropower Association. "Our indicators are through the roof."

Here's the rub. As a green energy source, hydro is still far from perfect. In fact, it might not even be green. ...

China's Three Gorges Dam project is probably a carbon-footprint winner, because it's in a temperate climate and displaces the power of 20 coal-fired plants. Brazil's Balbina dam, completed in the late 1980s, is more questionable: Fearnside calculated that in its first three years, it emitted 23 million tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane, four times the greenhouse gas output of a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power. (The dam's CO2 and methane eventually dissipated, however, decreasing its relative footprint.)

Meanwhile, hydro comes with plenty of other problems. Because of their enormous construction costs, big dams tend to be magnets for corruption. With contracts worth billions of dollars, there's a tendency for money to leak into "well-connected" pockets--a million here, a million there. Argentina's Yacyreta Dam, budgeted in 1983 at $2.5 billion, bloated to $15 billion by the time it was done in 1994, which led then-president Carlos Menem (who knew a thing or two about graft) to declare it "a monument to corruption."

In fact, the Patagonia project exists only because Chile's notorious Gen. Augusto Pinochet, in one of the dictator's last acts of office, gave away Patagonia's water rights to a privatized energy company that was later bought by Endesa. Some anti-dam activists believe Endesa is pushing the project hard now partly out of fear that the Chilean government could wise up, and, like Bolivia, re-nationalize resources like water.

Environmental mitigation, one of the industry's proud new buzz words, is too often a Lothario promise. Companies gain approval and funding by pledging to carry out substantial eco-improvements and mitigation. But once the dam goes up--as is happening right now in Laos, Turkey and Belize--the costly eco-plans are conveniently forgotten.

While the science of methane release gets sorted out, environmental activists in places like Patagonia are left with this unambiguous conclusion: Their beloved landscapes are slated to be drowned and torn asunder in the name of saving spectacular landscapes like those which will be drowned and torn asunder. They want renewable energy, just not this kind.

"We've got incredible potential for clean green energy up and down Chile," says Juan Pablo Orrego, director of the Chilean environmental group Eco-Sistemas. "We could have solar thermal in the Atacama Desert, wind power in Patagonia and tidal energy all along the coast."

That's right: They're ready to embrace hydro in Patagonia--the next generation, that is.


Anonymous   says 1:20 AM

Well, there is already hydro in central Chilean Patagonia, combined with diesel generation which is of course a renewable and clean source. The wind turbines installed in the Coyhaique area were a bust -- not enough reliable wind to make a useful contribution. Maybe they should employ a nuclear plant for the region? Or maybe hydro is not so bad after all. Unless the imperialistic Americans simply wish to deny the Chilean nation the right to develop their resources, which should surprise no-one.

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