A new study from scientists at the Michigan State University (MSU) suggests that the value of hydropower dams has been ‘overestimated’, with a legacy of underestimated costs that don’t take into consideration environmental disruption.

In the paper Sustainable hydropower in the 21st century, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors suggest that the developing world should turn to better ways to generate hydropower for industry and livelihoods.

"This article identifies that for hydropower to continue to make a contribution to sustainable energy it needs to consider from the outset the true costs, social, environmental and cultural that may be involved, and include those in the pricing of the infrastructure, including the eventual removal of the dam, rather than pass those on to the public in 30 years," said Emilio Moran, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences. "The benefits of energy from dams no longer outweigh the social and environmental costs that damming up rivers brings about."

The MSU team – which consists of geographers, social scientists, hydrologists and engineers – says that there is potential to be released in less intrusive technologies that don’t require dams, as long as they have in-depth environmental and social impact assessments. One of the options discussed is instream turbine technology.

"Our team is working on alternatives to hydropower generation, such as in-stream turbines that do not involve damming up the river, but produce energy for local communities, maintain a healthy river ecology, and does not involve resettlement and other social costs," Moran said. "Our goal is no less than transforming the hydropower sector."



Emilio F. Moran, Maria Claudia Lopez, Nathan Moore, Norbert Müller, David W. Hyndman. Sustainable hydropower in the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201809426 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1809426115