Hydropower capacity will need to increase 60% by 2050, with pumped hydro storage capacity needing to double, to help create a sustainable future energy system a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) suggests.

Policy-makers and planners around the world need to "start thinking now" about building new hydropower projects, IRENA said in the Global Renewables Outlook report.

In the report IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera urges stimulus and recovery packages as a response to the current Covid-19 pandemic and to “accelerate the shift to sustainable, decarbonised economies and resilient inclusive societies”. Recovery measures should include investment in “interconnected hydropower” among other technologies, La Camera says. “With the need for energy decarbonisation unchanged, such investments can safeguard against short-sighted decisions and greater accumulation of stranded assets."

The Global Renewables Outlook report says that "hydropower can bring important synergies to the energy system of the future" thanks to its multiple uses and synergies with other renewable energy technologies.

Under IRENA’s Transforming Energy Scenario, hydropower capacity will need to increase 25% by 2030, and 60% by 2050, with pumped storage doubling. When including both types of hydropower, around 850GW of newly installed capacity is required in the next 30 years – roughly the same as the entire power system capacity of the European Union in 2020.

The report continues: “Increasing hydropower capacity does not specifically entail only building new dams: options also exist to upgrade turbines and systems in existing plants, utilise run-of-river designs and electrify non-power dams.

“Yet for new hydropower plants, planners need to consider local environmental impacts, and engage in discussions with communities in the impacted areas. Hydropower plants will also need operational changes that reflect changing power system needs, including faster and more frequent ramping, and planning practices that include evaluating the impacts of climate change on water supply and reservoir storage requirements.

“Due to longer planning cycles for new hydropower dam construction, policy makers and planners need to start thinking now about new projects. For existing dams, investments are needed to modernise old hydro plants.”

The International Hydropower Association (IHA) is a leading member of IRENA's Coalition for Action, which was formed to promote the wider and faster uptake of renewable energy technologies. The coalition brings together private sector companies, industry associations, civil society, research institutes and intergovernmental organisations.

IHA Chief Executive Eddie Rich said: "In order to meet the climate change commitments set in the Paris Agreement in 2015, hydropower needs to grow much faster. This requires determined and enabling policy, market restructuring to better incentivise energy storage, and a step change in technical integration capability globally."