Helping small hydro make a bigger impact20 December 2023
The World Small Hydropower Development Report has been described as the most comprehensive report which has gone above and beyond in its latest edition. In this collaboration between the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation and the International Centre on Small Hydro Power, small hydro’s status and future potential are assessed, while the impacts of climate change and a thought-provoking look at how small hydro can help to close the gender gap, are also highlighted
Over 60 percent of global small hydropower (SHP) potential remains untapped which means there are still vast opportunities to use it for the benefit of local communities and the planet, said Gerd Müller, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
Writing in the foreword of the fourth edition of the World Small Hydropower Development Report (WSHDR2022), which was developed in partnership with the International Centre on Small Hydro Power (ICSHP), Müller said that in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, livelihoods, economic progress, and social stability have been severely impacted worldwide, with progress towards sustainable energy goals being hindered.
“In such a critical moment when multiple crises are coming together, we need a decisive collective effort to follow through on the goals the world community agreed on to build sustainable energy systems. We must make sure that renewable energy development is a top priority at all levels of decision-making. In the face of this challenge,” he stated, “it is especially critical to continue to collect and share knowledge about the various renewable energy technologies. Small hydropower is one of such solutions.”
Describing small hydro as a simple, adaptable, and low-cost technology that has long played a key part in providing access to sustainable and reliable electricity around the world, Müller said it is particularly suitable for remote and marginalised communities due to its adaptability to local needs and conditions, especially in remote areas with low-density energy demands. When planned with environmental and socio-economic considerations in mind, it can provide the foundations to empower communities, improve livelihoods and foster more development opportunities.
“Small hydropower offers one answer to many questions posed by the pandemic, climate crisis and energy transition for achieving the commitments under the Paris Agreement,” Müller stated.
In an effort to support policymakers, communities, potential developers and other stakeholders interested in developing small hydropower projects, UNIDO and ICSHP launched this report that prides itself on being a much-needed global resource. Today, it claims to be the only publication dedicated to the dissemination of in-depth information on SHP development.
The culmination of an enormous collective effort of more than 200 local and regional experts from across the globe, including engineers, academics and government officials, the current edition not only aims to provide an update on small hydro status by country, but strives to improve data accuracy with enhanced analysis and a more comprehensive overview with 20 regional chapters, 166 country chapters, 12 case studies, three thematic publications, as well as a global database of existing and planned plants.
“I am confident that this report will contribute to the global effort to build sustainable energy systems that will help mitigate the climate crisis and empower communities,” Müller said.
Small hydro worldwide
According to this 2022 report, the global installed capacity for small hydro plants of up to 10MW is estimated at approximately 79GW, with the total known potential (including developed capacities) at 221.7GW. However due to differing local definitions, data on plants of up to 10MW are unavailable in some countries, especially those with very developed small hydro sectors such as India, and so the global installed and potential capacity can be assumed to be somewhat higher than reported totals.
In comparison with the previous edition of WSHPDR which was published in 2019, installed small hydro capacity (up to 10MW) had increased by 1% by 2022, while at the same time, the estimated potential decreased by 3%. The latter is based on more accurate data obtained for countries including Norway, Turkey and the Philippines, as well as due to the lack of data in others.
Africa has reported the greatest relative increase in installed SHP capacity compared to the last report, with an increase of almost 23%. The Americas, Europe and Oceania have also seen an increase in installed capacity of approximately 11%, 4% and 3%, respectively. In absolute terms, the report states that the largest increase in installed capacity is in Europe at 734MW, followed by the Americas with 698MW and Africa with 134MW of new capacity.
Asia continues to have the largest installed capacity and potential for SHP, accounting for 64% and 63% of the global total, respectively. China continues to dominate the global landscape, with 53% of the world’s total SHP installed capacity and approximately 29% of the world’s total known potential. While in terms of installed capacity, China is followed by the US, Italy, Japan, and Norway, with these five countries accounting for almost 71% of the world’s total installed capacity of small hydro up to 10MW.
Looking at Africa, WSHDR2022 explains it has a relatively low level of installed capacity of 729MW but considerable potential for development with estimates of 15,714MW. However, potential varies as climatic and topographic characteristics differ tremendously across the continent. Of all African countries, Uganda has the highest installed capacity of 108MW, whereas Kenya has the highest estimated potential of 3000MW.
Northern America and South America dominate the landscape here, with Brazil and the US being leaders in terms of installed capacity while the US also dominates in terms of known potential. Although countries in the Caribbean region have significantly smaller estimated potential it has been suggested that further studies could reveal a greater potential in the region.
Total small hydro capacity in the Americas is 6937MW, with an estimated potential of 25,294MW. While according to available data, approximately 27% of known potential capacity in the Americas has been developed. In the current report, potential has significantly decreased compared to the previous edition – mainly due to the re-estimation of Colombian potential. And while some countries have an expected enormous potential, feasibility studies haven’t been carried out to determine their exact capacity. Mexico is one such country.
Asia has vast but unevenly distributed small hydro resources. With a total installed capacity of 50,406MW and an estimated potential of 139,946MW, approximately 36% has so far been developed. As expected, China also dominates the SHP landscape in Asia, accounting for over 83% of the continent’s installed capacity and 45% of known potential.
As the 2022 report states, small hydro development is one of the major priorities for countries in Asia and is being used to help decrease dependency on energy imports and fossil fuels, and improve access to electricity, especially in rural areas.
Europe has a long history of development with an installed capacity of 20,434MW and a potential capacity estimated at 39,607MW. An increase in installed capacity since WSHPDR 2019 is mainly due to new capacities being added in Norway, Italy, and Albania.
SHP potential varies across the region due to a wide variety of climates and landscapes. The greatest remaining potential is concentrated in Northern Europe, primarily in Norway. Italy is the leader in the continent in terms of installed capacity, followed by Norway and France.
Oceania is described as being the report’s smallest region in terms of the number of countries and installed (454MW) and potential small hydro capacity (1106MW). According to WSHDR2022, Australia and New Zealand have the greatest potential but further development is unforeseen in the region. While the Pacific Island Countries and Territories are mostly flat islands with little or no potential.
In recent years technological innovations, such as new low- and zero-head turbines, plus those in water pipelines, have increased the scope of small hydro development. However, even though the industry could benefit from digitalisation to help enhance efficiency, cybersecurity, and reliability, WSHDR2022 says it lags behind other electricity generating sectors due to its many ageing projects. Therefore, the report concludes, digitalisation remains an important consideration that requires further research and development to help improve SHP operation and future potential.
With global warming altering weather patterns, future hydropower forecasts that do not consider this will be unrealistic if based on business-as-usual scenarios, WSHDR2022 warns. With climate projections predicting a continuous temperature increase that will lead to a rise in evaporation and evapotranspiration, this in turn may lead to lower runoff and could impact the efficiency and performance of small hydro plants. Although melt from retreating glaciers will result in increased streamflow in the short term, presenting an opportunity for SHP within the next few decades, it will also lead to increased flows and floods that could damage hydropower plants.
A recent study has found that climate change could also shift the tropical rain belt of the planet. Projections indicate a northward shift over Eastern Africa and a southward shift in the Eastern Pacific, which could amplify flooding in southern India and increase drought stress in South-Eastern Africa and Central America. The repercussions could be significant for small hydro, the report warns, including a direct impact on the generation capacity and the potential ability of plants to adapt to climate change in the future.
In order to foster the development of small hydro plants, and taking into consideration their role in mitigation and adaptation, plus the impacts of climate change under different climate scenarios, the report provides various recommendations. For the national planning and regulatory bodies it says that they need to:
- Introduce policies to ensure consideration of climate change for the construction of new plants and the operation of existing ones.
- Foster the development of hydrological models for various climate scenarios relevant to local conditions and studies to reassess SHP potential.
- Develop holistic climate change adaptation plans including sectoral adaptation responses for watersheds.
- Set up regulatory frameworks that provide incentives for SHP development and reward projects adequately in the evolving energy markets.
While small hydro developers, owners and operators should:
- Undertake a climate risk assessment even if the project shows low risks to climate change impacts.
- Consider measures to increase the resilience of the project’s hydraulic infrastructure during refurbishment.
- Consider additional regulating reservoirs, reservoir-based SHP plants and other storage technologies such as lithium-ion batteries to add flexibility and energy storage.
- Consider SHP sites in locations less vulnerable to extreme weather impacts, better insurance policies and the development of early warning systems.
- Enhance climate-related information disclosure including GHG emissions and climate risks to access climate finance.
Since the publication of the first report in 2013, the combined installed capacity of global small hydro has increased by 12%, reaching 79.0GW. At the same time, known potential is estimated at 221.7GW. Therefore there is still room for development in many parts of the world. Despite recent progress, the report states that many of the barriers remain similar to those listed in its previous editions. These are common for all regions of the world and include:
- Lack of accurate and up-to-date data. This is a barrier for attracting private investment in developing countries but when available, in both developed and developing countries, data on small hydro potential are often overlooked as it is based on outdated studies that fail to account for current policy frameworks, technological improvements, and the potential arising from the rehabilitation of old sites or the development of existing waterways and dams.
- Lack of political focus on development. A focus on other forms of renewables such as wind and solar power has hindered progress within the sector, particularly when policies and financial incentives offered for renewable energy do not apply to SHP.
- Difficulties in finding sustainable sources of financing. Small hydro is often perceived as high risk by private investors and projects in developing countries are often supported through grants or soft loans from foreign development institutions or other countries, which isn’t a sustainable financing model.
- Lack of policies and regulations supporting development. Many countries still lack appropriate and well-defined pathways to achieve renewable energy targets that would be aligned with the development plans of other sectors such as water and the environment.
- Lack of incentives for investors and developers. It is crucial that incentive policies should be tailored to the specific needs of a country as poorly selected and structured incentives can have more of a negative than a positive effect on small hydro development.
- Negative public perception. While small hydro does not incur the same environmental costs as large hydropower projects, it nonetheless tends to suffer from a similarly poor public image. The importance and advantages of SHP as a solution to rural electrification and inclusive sustainable industrial development are still underestimated.
With the above barriers to development in mind, WSHDR2022 suggests the following recommendations need to be taken into consideration:
- Undertake detailed resource assessments. Developing countries should undertake detailed analyses of their small hydro potential to lower development costs and encourage private investment. Developed countries would similarly benefit from undertaking detailed re-assessments to account for new technologies, ecological conditions, regulations as well as the potential arising from the conversion of existing infrastructure and the rehabilitation of old sites.
- Develop appropriate policies and regulations. Policies and financial incentives already established for other sources of renewable energy should be extended to cover small hydro and be properly designed to account for local conditions and draw on collaboration among agencies responsible for water resources, environment and electricity. Government agencies should also streamline the licensing process by creating a one-stop shop for standardised permits and contracts.
- Facilitate access to sustainable sources of financing. An overall strategy aiming to reduce the financial risks for investors should be developed. Creating awareness of small hydro among local banking institutions or microfinance institutions to improve the risk assessment and provide conducive loan conditions will be helpful.
- Improve access to equipment and technology. The building or improvement of industries that serve as components of SHP will aid in the overall development of the sector. In countries with insufficient local technology, access to imports can be aided through the establishment of conces¬sionary duties and reduced import taxes.
- Provide reliable infrastructure. Developing robust grids with suitable capacity and coverage to accommodate new small hydro is critical for attracting private investment. In countries with high distribution losses, investments in distribution systems should match those in the generation, to raise the overall efficiency of projects.
- Improve local skills and expertise. By increasing local capacities in conducting feasibility studies, construction, operation and maintenance of plants, the whole small hydro sector can become more self-sufficient and long-lasting for countries.
- Strengthen international and regional cooperation. Promotion by international and regional institutions is essential for mainstreaming small hydro as a positive renewable energy solution. By developing South-South cooperation and triangular cooperation among developing countries, developed countries and international organisations, international and regional agencies can facilitate the tran¬sition of individual pilot projects towards the successful implementation of full-scale small hydro programmes.
Few studies have previously documented the gender impacts of the development and use of small hydro power, but according to the World Small Hydropower Development Report, there is emerging evidence that it can empower women and girls around the globe, helping to close gender gaps. Discussing the barriers to women’s participation in the sector, the 2022 report makes key recommendations based on a literature review and interviews undertaken with various stakeholders across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe.
Although women are often excluded from participating in decision-making regarding the development of infrastructure and governance, the often-decentralised nature of small hydro means that decisions can be made at a local level where a gender approach to development presents an opportunity for female involvement.
Women’s participation in hydropower development can also influence decision-making and governance beyond small communities as was recently shown in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here women protested about the construction of the 1.5MW Luke hydropower plant which was perceived to threaten the Krušcica River, including the community’s fresh drinking water and livelihoods. Some of these women were later elected to the local village council and became part of the broader local governance they were traditionally excluded from, while their local protests led to national-level policy changes and even Balkans-wide debates on sustainable approaches to small hydro development.
There are also many employment opportunities for women in the small hydro sector. In Zambia, the Zengamina hydropower company created 400 local jobs during construction, 40%vof which were taken up by women. In the remote mountain regions of south-western China, a group of 95 small hydro projects called the Huóshuu? SHP provide direct employment to 240 women, representing 30% of the workforce.
Small hydro development can also create indirect jobs that are stimulated by the arrival of electricity in a community. In Pakistan’s Peshawar Valley, AKRSP’s hydropower plants have powered gemstone processing companies that have employed women who previously had no job opportunities. In Kenya and Malawi, women have been employed in hair salons, bakeries and other businesses enabled by electricity from SHP. In addition, when the time women spend on chores is reduced due to electricity, the hours gained can be used for studying, engaging in income generation and community activities, which can close gender gaps in education and associated opportunities in economic and political power.
After a 100kW micro-hydropower plant was constructed in Senghor, Bhutan, all homes obtained rice cookers and half of them curry cookers and water heaters through the United Nations Development Programme. This enabled mostly women and girls to use the gained time for studying, socialising, and entertainment. Other examples showing the positive impacts of using small hydro to electrify households are given in Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, and Nepal.
In addition, improvements in women’s health and education were well-illustrated in a Nepalese study where 24 micro-hydropower plants powered 84 schools, 40 hospitals/health clinics and nine community centres. The powering of clinics can be critical for women’s health, improving chances of a safe birth, even when the electricity is used for something as basic as lighting but more so when it powers equipment.
There is also emerging evidence that when electricity at home frees the time women and girls spend on household chores, their study time and enrolment in schooling or adult classes can increase. In Nepal’s Pinthali village, older women who had previously missed out on education reported that micro-hydropower enabled them to study at night and they gained literacy and numeracy skills, which improved their understanding of business transactions and reduced the chances of customers cheating them. In Zambia, the Zengamina SHP plant connected at least five schools to electricity, while in Malawi, the MEGA hydropower plant has electrified ten schools, enabling improved services. This has reportedly increased the number of female teachers in the electrified communities and improved students’ performance, especially girls who have extra study time using electric light in the evenings.
Access to electricity can even go further and challenge narratives and change gender roles. In Mahadevsthan, Nepal, when micro-hydropower was installed, households obtained access to television and mobile phones which gave access to different gender narratives and worldviews. This meant women could see other women in non-traditional roles on television programmes, which in some cases changed their minds about their career options, with older women reportedly wanting their daughters to receive a good education and have careers such as the ones they saw on television.
The advent of micro-hydropower in Gundruk, Nepal, enabled 88% of households to obtain TVs or radios, which reportedly made women realise that they “don’t have to remain second-class citizens”. In addition the popularity of mobile phones increased after electrification over in Mahadevsthan, allowing young women and men to negotiate their relationships as opposed to the regional traditions of parents arranging them. In this way, young women gained some level of change and increased control over a critical part of their lives.
WSHDR2022 goes on to explain that when women work on small hydro developments or operations, it can change communities’ perceptions of their abilities. The professional women who took part in research for the report and who worked in male-dominated positions in SHP, reported that their positions there changed narratives and perceptions, among both women and men, about female capabilities.
Looking to the future, WSHDR2022 recommends that the business case for gender in SHP should be showcased and should look beyond economics, while it is also important to get the buy-in and support of leadership, most of whom are men, and there needs to be increased engagement with women’s groups to enhance their participation in consultations and planning. Innovative strategies, including targeted subsidies, will be required to connect to the poorest households and supportive spaces for women need to be created to attract and retain female talent.
Furthermore, capacity building and skills enhancement for women need to be funded and supported, and gender-responsive governance needs to be enforced to safeguard and improve women’s livelihoods. While in order to unlock access for poor women, female-headed households and other excluded groups, the administrative burdens of connecting to electricity need to be eased.