Energy Democracy

Decentralized power generation with hydropower

What's the problem?

The problem is the stagnating expansion or moreover the dismantling of renewable energies in Germany.

The percentage of renewable energies in the → Gross electricity consumption has been increasing for years, but with ever decreasing growth rates. The number of workers* in the sector RE sector decreases continuative since 2012, as well as the number of patent applications. The → investments in renewable energy plants and the net increase in installed capacity for electricity generation from renewable energy sources appear to level off to the period before 2009 after a slump in 2011 (BMWi).

If we look at the different energy sources in a 10-year comparison, it is striking that gross electricity generation from hydropower is the only type of generation that has developed negatively and has fallen by 2.5 percentage points. (BMWi)

While in the 2000s there was still a kind of gold-rush atmosphere in the field of renewable energies, this feeling has apparently now disappeared.

There are almost no more possibilities to build new facilities - but the saddest news is, that even already built facilities, which produce CO2-free energy and contribute to the → energy turnaround, are supposed to be shut down and deconstructed.

These are small hydropower plants, mostly built on old existing mill weirs, which were able to supply local economies or communities → with decentralized electricity.

The reason given for the required dismantling is the requirement for passability, as it is set out in the European Water Framework Directive. It is clear to many hydropower operators that the passability of watercourses is a must today in the course of various renaturation measures on rivers, and there are great efforts to implement passability from this direction. However, as this is associated with immensely high costs, the plant would no longer be profitable to operate.

Still, it has to be possible to combine and enable both nature- and climate-protection: CO2-free energy generation and the protection of aquatic→ ecosystems. There are already many good examples of truly ecological and continuous hydropower plants, but they are not sufficiently present in the public perception.

The current unthought-out (and very frightening) alternative is to build large centralized facilities and expand the networks in → dezentral (decentralized) regions.

What's the measure?

The first step of the measure is to develop an awareness of the advantages of local small hydropower and thus make the issue visible to the population. At the same time, topics relating to continuity must be discussed openly in order to find the best solutions together. The call for consistency may not be sufficient to shut down thousands of plants that already today (and for many decades) contribute to CO2-free energy production.

Shutting down decentralized power sources without a concept for alternatives is not in favor of the → energy turnaround. It should rather be worked on solutions, how the energy can continue to exist!

In a second step, it is necessary to think about possible alternative operator models for the plants in order to counteract the dying out of hydropower. The infrastructure and everything are already there! It takes user groups with foresight and strong municipal operators (see EWS Annual Report 2019: municipal hydropower operator from Norway (HelelandKraft) nominated as Best Green Brand at the Change Award).

Small hydroelectric power spares fossil fuels on various levels: on the one hand, it replaces conventionally produced electricity from coal, gas or uranium and, on the other hand, it is resource-friendly and largely climate-neutral even during construction and operation. For this reason, hydropower should not disappear, at least not until its above-mentioned advantages can actually be met by sustainable alternatives.

How can the implementation look like?

Call to politics and administration not to destroy the small hydropower in the stock as long as there is no sustainable → decentralized alternative to electricity generation.

To redirect → subsidies from climate-damaging energy production methods such as coal and nuclear power towards renewable energies. Why are we forced by our taxes to finance these old conventional energy sources even further, when we want the energy turnaround?

Collect good examples where climate- and nature-protection go hand in hand and make these visible in public. There will only be a future if we protect both.

Some federal states are currently developing their climate protection laws. It is essential that these laws state that existing plants are protected and that we work together to ensure their consistency.

How does this work against climate change?

Renewable energy facilities that already exist, need to remain unchanged since they already work climate-neutral and thus take an important step towards the → energy turnaround.

Which other effects does the measure have?

The decentralisation of small hydroelectric power plants can avoid immensely high grid expansion costs (and thus partly avoid large construction sites such as Südlink), as the study by Prof. Dr. Zdrallek from the University of Wuppertal shows. (see also: other positive effects of the measure!)

The use (not consumption!) of the local raw material water in hydroelectric power plants fulfills, in addition to the decentralised CO2-free electricity production, the grid services, the → baseload capacity. Moreover, ecosystem services such as the retention of water and thus the wetting of floodplains and moors (regulation) provide a habitat for aquatic animals and birds and provides cultural services such as natural and cultural heritage. Local jobs are secured in small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas that are fed by hydropower electricity. Some of the hydroelectric power plants distributed throughout the country are currently being equipped with electric filling stations - i.e. green electricity actually comes out of the can and you can fill up with electricity in the countryside.

How quickly can this be implemented?

Immediately, there are already plants that have received a closure notice and are forced to stop their electricity production in favour of large centralised plants that do not fulfil the above-mentioned advantages and are often owned by groups of companies.

How long does it take the measure to become effective?

Immediately, since the stock is already there and does not have to be built first.

References to other measures

Wetting of bogs and floodplains, decentralised networks, equalizing urban-rural differences, mobility transition, global justice

Problems of social, global and intergenerational justice

Our global responsibility in implementing the → energy turnaround in Germany must be mentioned without fail. After all, implementing the → energy turnaround with rare soils and raw materials from resource-rich countries, which are, however, more strongly affected by poverty, cannot be the goal.  Hydropower only uses local raw materials and local natural resources (water).

I would not include major projects with dams in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which among other things want to use hydropower, and I would completely exclude them from this discussion (since it is often unclear: who are the investors, who are the users, who are the affected parties (see World Commission on Dams or WWF Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol).

After all, this is about local value creation and not about post-colonialist aspirations.

Continuative literature, sources---

  1. Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi): Erneuerbare Energien (abgerufen am 01.03.2020)
  2. Arbeitsgruppe Erneuerbare Energien-Statistik (AGEE-Stat): Zeitreihen zur Entwicklung der erneuerbaren Energien in Deutschland (Dezember 2019, abgerufen am 01.03.2020)
  3. Statista: Erneuerbare Energien in Deutschland (abgerufen am 01.03.2020)
  4. ElektrizitätsWerke Schönau (EWS): Jahresbericht 2019 (2019, abgerufen am 01.03.2020)
  5. Zdrallek, Markus: Netztechnischer Beitrag von kleinen Wasserkraftwerken zu einer sicheren und kostengünstigen Stromversorgung in Deutschland. (2018, abgerufen am 01.03.2020)
  6. River Ecosystem Service Index (RESI): Ecosystem Services (2020, abgerufen am 01.03.2020)
  7. International Hydropower association: Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (2018, abgerufen am 01.03.2020)

BMWi, AGEE-Stat , Zeitreihen zur Entwicklung der erneuerbaren Energien in Deutschland, as of february 2019

Statista, Erneuerbare Energie in Deutschland study_id6334

EWS (Energiewerke Schönau)  annual report 2019

Prof. Dr. Zdrallek, Markus (2018): Netztechnischer Beitrag von kleinen Wasserkraftwerken zu einer sicheren und kostengünstigen Stromversorgung in Deutschland. Lehrstuhl für Elektrische Energieversorgungstechnik. Bergische Universität Wuppertal.