While hydropower is a renewable energy source with usually a small carbon footprint, the role it can play in reaching Europe´s climate change mitigation targets is limited. Also, hydropower installations do have negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems and their services at local and river basin levels while river stretches and floodplains of high ecological integrity have become rare in Europe. Those that are left are in urgent need of protection, while degraded freshwater systems must be saved from further deterioration and restored where possible according to the EU Water Framework and Nature Directives. Fish passes and other environmental mitigation as well as compensation measures can only reduce but never fully eliminate the loss of biodiversity hydropower plants of all sizes inflict on the system. Therefore, WWF, the International Association for Danube Research (IAD) and European Anglers Alliance believe that hydropower generation in the Alpine, Carpathian, Danube and Western Balkan regions can only be compatible with environmental legislation, the EU Biodiversity Strategy and the Convention on Biological Diversity, if governments apply the following principles:
A) Strategic planning and policy level
1) In order to reduce impact of existing hydropower infrastructure, the legislative framework and its enforcement need to be strengthened where necessary to minimize negative impacts of hydropower, e.g. by guaranteeing ecological flow, outlawing hydro-peaking in certain areas, or making facilities for sediment transport or fish migration aids mandatory. The Swiss Law of Water Protection is one good example. Mitigation measures must be integral parts of renewed and new hydropower concessions. NGOs must be given the right of complaint in case water ecosystems suffer from violation of environmental laws as is the case in some European countries.
By internalising environmental costs and applying market based instruments harmful projects should be made unprofitable while careful planning and mitigation of impacts paying off,
The decommissioning of obsolete dams or of structures at locations critical for river continuity has to be planned in a strategic manner, as is practiced in France for example.
2) Before an increase of hydropower capacity can be discussed, a long-term energy policy needs to be defined aiming at phasing out fossil fuels and nuclear energy while reducing overall energy consumption. Based on this policy, sustainable energy scenarios should be developed and integrated on regional level. These scenarios show which role hydropower (considering its negative impacts) can play, what energy savings and demand reduction can achieve; they define needs for grid upgrading (“Smart Grids”) and incorporate rural development aspects.
3) In case the long-term sustainable energy policy identifies a role for hydropower, the full potential for optimising (upgrade, refurbish, possibly extend etc) existing hydropower infrastructure has to be exhausted while lowering overall environmental impacts. Such technical mitigation measures (e.g. turbines with lower fish mortality rates) adjusted to size and type of the plant can considerably increase energy production without deteriorating environmental conditions.
4) Only if the optimisation potential has been exhausted and no environmentally better options exist, new hydropower plants can be considered. They must be based on strategic pre-planning mechanisms to achieve environmental integration and developed in cooperation with stakeholders (including NGOs), comprising the following elements:
- areas not suitable for new hydropower are to be defined and mapped under a basin-wide agreed set of scientifically sound ecological, cultural and social criteria. The protection of these areas should be made legally binding either at national and/or at regional/basin level.
- Besides areas not suitable for new hydropower development, different sensitivity classes should be defined that indicate decreasing ecological priority (and increasing acceptability for hydropower developments).
- Criteria for defining sensitivity classes in particular areas not suitable for new hydropower development encompass:
- Protected Areas of global, EU, and national status, including riverine landscapes of outstanding value (e.g. national heritage, still intact sub-basins/valleys),
- river systems featuring reference conditions,
- Ecological aspects, paying attention to the need of adapting to a changing climate (i.e. ecological status, hydromorphology, habitats and species of global or EU importance outside of protected areas, national biodiversity strategy, endemism, “hot spots” such as river stretches with actual or potential high fish species diversity),
- Existing and potential longitudinal and lateral continuity/connectivity with respect to upstream and downstream migration of fish and invertebrates (benthos), and sediment transport.
- SEAs have to become mandatory for new hydropower development plans.
- Technical specifications (operation, lay-out, size etc) for hydropower installations leading to lowest impact is also to be specified per river sections.
B) Project level
- Proper application of the EIA Directive with review by independent experts must involve (a) a complete and proper list of environmental issues; (b) scientifically sound reports about the expected environmental impacts and proposals of feasible environmental measures; (c) a legally binding text of concessions approved by the competent authority; (d) proper implementation and monitoring, including necessary amendments.
- Good practice and Best Available Technique (BAT) with regard to environmental impact reduction for (1) avoiding, (2) mitigating and (3) compensating impacts through proper location, design and operation has to be defined, making use of e.g. the revised IHA protocol, the Greenhydro methodology, or criteria for the German renewable energy act.
- By involving stakeholders, in particular local communities, and NGOs from the start, their knowledge can be used for defining the best design and location and conflicts become less likely.
- Ecolables (such as the Swiss naturmade star) can reduce impact but require sufficient understanding of river ecology and increase costs.
Contacts: WWF: Irene Lucius, email@example.com, tel.: +43676842728215; IAD: Dr. Jürg Bloesch, Stauffacherstrasse 159, CH-8004 Zürich, firstname.lastname@example.org, ÖKF/ EAA: Helmut Belanyecz, Breitenfurter Strasse 333 – 335, A-1230 Wien