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European insights: hydropower, climate change and EU law

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For two years running, renewable energy has produced more power than fossil fuels throughout Europe in the second quarter of the year.  Accounting for 44.4% of all renewable generation, the largest contribution came from hydropower plants and, according to EnAppSys’ recent European electricity analysis, hydro looks set to remain the dominant renewable fuel source in Europe for the foreseeable future.

During Q2 2019, European hydro generated 109.2TWh, which was down 14% for the same period of 2018 – was a key factor in the overall 3% decline in renewable generation.  Looking at the full picture, hydropower ranked second behind nuclear plants which generated 28.2% of total power. Hydro contributed 17.5%, gas and coal/ignite were third (17.0% and 14.7% respectively), followed by wind (11.5%), solar (6.5%), then biomass, oil, waste and peat

Under pressure

Recent analysis by the European Environment Agency (EEA) suggests that climate change is already putting pressure on Europe’s energy system. In a new report published in June 2019, EEA states that all parts of the European energy system, from availability of energy sources to consumption, are potentially vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events.

The report, called Adaptation Challenges and Opportunities for the European Energy System, analyses the current and future needs for climate change adaptation and resilience in Europe’s energy system. Climate changes, such as increases in mean and extreme air and water temperatures; changes in water availability; extreme climate-related events; and coastal and marine hazards, will not only affect the availability of primary energy sources (especially renewables) but also the transformation, transmission, distribution and storage of energy, and energy demand.

Water availability

According to the EEA, climate change is already affecting water availability. There are large variations across European regions but in general the hydrological cycle is projected to intensify and change precipitation patterns across Europe.

As the report states: “Northern Europe has generally become wetter in recent decades (up to 70mm per decade), whereas southern Europe has generally become drier (up to 90mm per decade). This trend is projected to continue in the future but with marked seasonal differences. The strongest decrease is projected for southern Europe in the summer.

“Projected changes in annual river flow show a pattern similar to that for annual precipitation,” the report continues. “Decreasing river flows are projected for southern European countries (particularly Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain and Turkey) and increasing flows for northern European countries.”

In general, northern Europe will experience both beneficial and adverse impacts on its energy system, whereas southern European regions face overwhelmingly adverse impacts.

Such projected changes will not only impact the availability of cooling water for thermal power plants in the European energy system, but will also impact hydropower production. As the EEA points out, hydropower plants’ dependence on streamflow makes them sensitive to changes in rainfall, snowfall and snow and glacier melt.

Declining streamflow could undermine hydropower productivity and cost-effectiveness. Hydropower is an important energy source in southern European countries that face decreasing water availability, in particular Turkey (which has considerable expansion plans), but also in Italy, Portugal and Spain. In contrast, it is predicted that Nordic countries (particularly Norway and Sweden) and the Alpine region will experience increased annual or seasonal water availability due to increasing precipitation, and possibly increased glacier melt.

The EEA points out that glacial retreat caused by rising temperatures can have different impacts on hydropower. In the short to medium term, it can increase hydropower production by increasing streamflow. However, excessive water availability can challenge hydropower storage capacities with the risk of power outages. Glacial retreat may also increase sediment transport, particularly in Alpine regions. This can accumulate in reservoirs and intake channels leading to reduced storage capacity and water flow, and causing turbine deterioration if not managed correctly. In the long term, glacial retreat decreases streamflow, in particular in the spring and summer melt season.

“Hydropower projects with substantial reservoir storage can be more resilient to short-term changes in river flows,” the EEA states, “and they can provide additional services, such as flood protection. However, they are affected by increasing temperatures, which increases evaporation from the reservoir. More than half of Europe’s hydropower capacity is held in pumping-storage power plants, which buffer not only against fluctuating streamflow but also against fluctuating electricity demand. Run-of-river plants have limited regulating capacity and are thus directly affected by changes in streamflow.”

Impacts of inland flooding

Climate change has resulted in many extreme weather events, such as droughts and heavy precipitation events, both globally and across Europe. Further changes in the frequency, location and the intensity of these are projected throughout Europe.

Heavy precipitation events have generally increased since the 1950s in northern Europe, with more inconsistent changes in southern Europe. This has resulted in the occurrence and greater frequency of inland flooding.

Inland floods can have significant impacts on energy infrastructure, as demonstrated by heavy and prolonged rainfall throughout Portugal in 2000 which caused damage to levees and the overtopping of dams. The subsequent flooding threatened to damage a major gas pipeline in the area, leading to the evacuation of more than 100 people.

More frequent heavy precipitation events are expected to increase river and flash floods in many parts of Europe. The EEA says that country-level analysis shows that the largest increases in flood hazard and adaptation needs, are projected for the UK, France, Italy, Romania, Hungary and Czechia. Adaptation options include risk-based planning, changing the operational regimes of reservoirs, dyke construction, component-based flood barriers and relocation.


As the EEA predicts, the impacts of drought are also being experienced across Europe. Soaring temperatures during July 2019 contributed to worsening drought conditions across several regions, particularly in Lithuania, central Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, central France and Spain. The JRC European Drought Observatory (EDO) reported on 8 August 2019 that the drought resulted from a combination of factors, such as the:

  • Long-tail influence of the 2018 drought.
  • Heatwaves of June/July 2019.
  • Below-average precipitation in spring 2019.

Low water levels were reported to be affecting waterways in central Europe and causing significant disruptions to logistics. EDO said that the heatwave forced more electricity demand, while supply was shrinking due to reduced operation of water dependent power plants, thus pushing up energy prices. Indeed, in Poland, the EDO said that rivers were literally running dry with restrictions in place to optimise water usage and the potential for water shortages.  French authorities declared a water supply emergency in several departments across the central region and introduced tight restrictions on water use.

According to the conservation organisation WWF, EU Member States’ poor management of rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater is worsening the impacts of such drought as European water resources are being stretched “worryingly thin”. In a report published in July 2019, WWF claims that droughts often become substantially worse, not due to low rainfall, but to the overexploitation and poor management of water resources.

Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office, said: “With intense droughts, heat and floods quickly becoming Europe’s ‘new normal’, smart water management – coupled with reducing emissions – can help us tackle the issue at the source. Climate change is happening, and the European Commission must decide immediately to buffer the impacts by accepting the EU water law as fit for purpose.”

EU Water Framework Directive

In his remarks, Baumüller makes reference to the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). Adopted in October 2000, the WFD has been described as the most comprehensive instrument of EU water policy. Its main objective is to protect and enhance freshwater resources with the aim of achieving good status of EU lakes, rivers, groundwater, transitional and coastal waters by 2027.

The WFD is currently undergoing a fitness check – a standard European Commission policy evaluation assessing whether the current regulatory framework is fit for purpose. The goal is to assess the effectiveness, efficiency, coherence and relevance of the legislation, making it more responsive to current and future challenges as well as helping improve implementation. After a period of public consultation, a statement on the fitness check is expected this autumn and will go before the European parliament in 2020.

In an effort to ensure that the water law remains unchanged, a coalition of environmental groups called Living Rivers Europe has been lobbying to safeguard the law and strengthen its implementation and enforcement. The group claims that only 40% of EU rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands are healthy today, “largely due to pressures from industrial agriculture and hydropower, as well as other sectors, such as mining”. It goes on to add that some industries are coming together to lobby for substantial changes to this legislation which would “essentially give these industries the green light to maintain their activities business as usual”.

In its position paper on the WFD consultation Eurelectric, which represents the interests of the electricity industry across Europe, gives recommendations from the hydropower sector. It acknowledges that the WFD is a crucial piece of legislation for protecting inland waters and promoting sustainable water use but that, alongside environmental objectives, it also must take into account the need for economic development and social, economic and climatic conditions.

The report states: “As it is the purpose of the WFD to strike a balance between environmental, climate and socio-economic goals, it should not unduly hamper the operation of existing hydropower plants, or create obstacles to upgrading or developing new hydropower.

“Most hydropower plants have been in place for decades and serve as a crucial backbone both for the power system and for water management. Ensuring the further operation of these existing assets should be a priority for long-term climate protection and sustainable water management planning.”

To illustrates its point, Eurelectric gives possible consequences of WFD mitigation measures on hydropower generation in EU Member States:

  • In Sweden – hydropower generation represents 40% of total share of electricity and 73% of renewables. The originally proposed WFD mitigation measures could have decreased annual hydropower generation by 15-20% and affected flexibility of hydropower significantly.
  • In Austria – hydropower (including pumped storage) represents more than two-thirds of overall electricity generation, of which 23% are highly valuable peak loading to help integrate other renewables. In the first implementation period, more than 130 WFD mitigation measures have been completed with a total investment of nearly 190M Euros, leading to yearly generation losses equalling the energy consumption of 45,000 households.
  • In Spain – hydropower represents 12% of the total share of electricity and around 40% of renewables. The WFD mitigation measures could have decreased annual hydropower generation by 3%.
  • In Italy – hydropower represents 15-20% of total electricity and around 45% of renewables. Proposed mitigation measures could have led to a 10% reduction.

Amongst other recommendations, Eurelectric says the following should be considered when evaluating the water directive:

  • Involve all relevant stakeholders in the development of the WFD to ensure a fair sharing of responsibilities and costs when defining and implementing mitigation measures to achieve goals.
  • Improve the implementation and governance of the WFD by using existing tools in a pragmatic and integrated manner, and by systematically assessing the impacts of the River Basin Management Plans and their measures on the existing and future renewable power systems.
  • Implement the “non-deterioration” principle concerning maintaining freshwater ecosystems in a practicable and integrated way when applying the WFD exemption for projects.
  • The cost-recovery principle should focus only on specific water users (not including hydropower) in order to be considered an effective and efficient element of the WFD. In general hydropower does not contribute to water scarcity or pollution.

Eurelectric has also been looking at the EU Eel Regulation which it says is closely linked to the Water Framework Directive. Thus it should take into consideration the main purpose of the WFD; namely to promote sustainable water use and strike a balance between environmental, climate and socio-economic goals.  However, Eurelectric argues that some existing measures are affecting hydropower and lead to generation or flexibility losses. Under the Eel Regulations, an Eel Management Plan can include temporary switching-off of hydroelectric power turbines.  This can be considered as an appropriate measure in order to reduce eel mortality caused by factors outside the fishery.

Eurelectric believes that Article 2 (10) of the Eel Regulation could be reviewed to expand on the meaning of ‘appropriate’ and ‘reduce’ when considering the multiple factors which can influence eel migration and mortality. It says that this would help avoid circumstances where excessively costly measures are used when a similar effect on the eel population could be obtained much more efficiently elsewhere (for example through fisheries restrictions).

Indeed, a study on the sustainability of European eel management, commissioned by the European Parliament’s committee on fisheries, has shown that after a two to five-year period migration facilities would be more cost effective than shutting down facilities. For example, in France, the impact of a seasonal ten-week shut down of hydropower facilities would range from EUR 127-634M at a total loss in power generation from 1.5-7.7TWh. In comparison, the possible costs of constructing upstream and downstream migration facilities are estimated to range between EUR 1051-3110M. For Spain, losses are in the same range as in France, while for Greece and Germany losses were lower.

Eurelectric says that along with its members it is looking forward to discussions on future EU water and fisheries policies: “Given the Eel Regulation and the complex interlinked relationship with the WFD, we call on the Commission to involve Eurelectric together with its members in the development of future EU water and fishery policies as experienced stakeholders, fully committed to sustainable resource management.”

Source: https://www.waterpowermagazine.com/


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