Renewable energy is a hot topic in Europe at the moment. Billions are being invested, and expectations are sky high. So, in this scenario, what expectations should we have for Norwegian hydropower?
This was the back-drop for the discussion HydroCen lead at a work shop in Brussels during the NTNU alumni conference this month.
At present large parts of Europe depend on coal, gas, and nuclear power to produce electricity, but in recent years improvements in wind and solar technology has led more countries to believe in a renewable future – also in short term prospects.
No mention of hydropower?
The EU has set an ambitious target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050. That also means that there is new potential for hydroelectric power in Europe.
As a flexible renewable energy source, hydropower has a unique ability to produce power when the wind is still, and the sun does not shine.
For this reason, an important question from HydroCen was «why is hydropower not mentioned in the broad outlines in EUs plan for a renewable future?»
— Even if hydropower is not highlighted in the overall plans, there are possibilities for hydropower within the system, said Dr. Thomas Schleker, Policy Officer DG Research & Innovation G3 Renewable Energy Sources, European Commission.
Schleker mentioned that several of the European Commission’s plans and communications are relevant to hydropower research, including SET-Plan and the Communication «Accelerating Clean Energy Innovation».
— In the context of the strategy it is important to maintain efforts to address continuous challenges in the sector, and to continue hydropower research in Horizon 2020. It is important to maintain activities around the challenges in the industry and to explore which particular areas can be optimized.
Is hydropower the bad conscience of the renewables?
Hydropower has been a reliable energy source for over 100 years and is therefore often regarded as “conventional technology” – often grouped together with oil, coal, and gas – in the European context.
Hydropower is 100% renewable and as long as water evaporates and precipitates as rain; everlasting. This obviously makes this classification very contentious.
Hydropower utilizes over 90% of the potential energy in the water, while coal only exploits 40% and pollutes much more.
Nevertheless, for many years, hydropower has had a rather shady reputation in Europe, and even amongst some groups of people in Norway. Due to the major impact hydropower development can have on biodiversity in affected lakes and rivers, the environmental movement is known for its extensive protests in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The most famous conflicts in Norway are Mardøla and Altavassdraget, the latter being the last major hydropower development in Norway.
— Due to increased focus on climate change and major efforts to maintain the biodiversity in watercourses linked to power stations, people today are more positive to the industry,» said Kjetil Lund, head of public affairs at Statkraft during the panel discussion.
— I think hydropower in Norway is generally in a better position than in Europe, said Mirjam Sick, Vice President, Innovation and Technology Management, Andritz Hydro.
Difficult times for hydropower in Europe
There is no will or intention to develop any more of the major watercourses in Norway, but in the locations where these big investments and interventions have been made, it is also important to utilize them responsibly. One alternative that can contribute to more renewables throughout Europe is to coordinate hydroelectric power with sun and wind.
When night falls and the wind is silent, hydropower could supply electricity, instead of coal and nuclear power, as it is today. However, in the present European power market, this is not profitable, according to Sick.
— We want to reduce CO2 and increase renewables. But this is a really difficult time for hydropower in Europe, she said.
— Market prices have gone down, and in Switzerland there are even some utilities that are making negative profits. The economic calculations for investments that where made 5-10 years ago have proven to be wrong, and this puts hydropower under enormous pressure. We, as a developer of electro-mechanical equipment for hydropower plants, can really feel it, said Sick.
She is nevertheless positive to further research in the field.
— From difficult times come great innovations, and in hydropower even small innovations can have a large impact.
— Hydropower is the core of the European Energy transition
HydroCen researchers believe that innovation can largely increase todays energy production, even within the existing infrastructure of power stations and watercourses.
A major question that may be a decisive factor, is “is it profitable, and desireable to produce more hydroelectric power?”
Currently the answer is no, but the European and global goals for green change will require major changes in near future.
— I don’t think there is one solution that will be the solution here. The smartest solution we see today is a combination of all the renewables, said Kjetil Lund, in Statkraft.
The developments in wind and solar technology have been considerable in recent years, and they are still far from reaching their full potential.
According to calculations from Statkraft, wind and solar power will soar in the years to come, and it is likely that hydropower will then play an increasingly central role in achieving a flexible renewable energy market.
So, when the wind does not blow, and the sun does not shine, who should supply power? Coal, gas and nuclear power plants, or maybe it should be renewable hydroelectric power?
— I look at hydropower as an enabling technology for the other renewable energy sources, said Sigrid Hjørnegård, Vice President for Renewable Energy, climate and environment at Energy Norway.
— Sun, wind and water have different capacities, characters and size. That creates a good synergy and together they make each other stronger, she said.
Hydroelectric power has a unique storage capacity. Through HydroCens’s research, the plan is to develop technology that also enables power stations to quickly stop and start in tune with market needs and weather conditions.
Physical and political challenges
Power lines to Europe is a controversial topic in Norway, and a question from the audience addressed this:
«If the power is to be produced over such large geographic distances, wind at sea, solar cells scattered everywhere and hydroelectric power in the Nordic and Alpine regions, how is it going to be transported in Europe?»
— One thing is the need for physical infrastructure, wires that carry the power from place to place; another thing is what the map will look like. How will hydropower be the most useful to complement sun and wind?, said Kjetil Lund in Statkraft.
He also pointed out; although the innovative potential in hydropower is less than in the new technologies, hydropower will represent a value-added role when Europe gets rid of its fossil fuelled power plants.
To make use of these opportunities, there is a need for new and innovative solutions in turbine and generator technology, grids, market solutions, and in particular to ensure that the impact on nature is positive rather than negative, which is a prerequisite for people to welcome the hydropower.
Perhaps hydropower should still be a topic in the EU’s research program, EERA?