World Water Week: Water and energy in the Alps

Kaprun Power Plant in the Austrian Alps.

Kaprun Hydropower Plant  in the Austrian Alps.

In Norway, 99% of power is provided by renewable energy in the form of hydropower.  Norway produces so much power from rivers and streams that it is now expanding capacity to provide hydropower to its neighboring countries.

Could the same be done in the Alps?

Hydropower is already pervasive in the Alps, providing about 100 TWh of power for the region. There are many potential places in the Alps for more hydropower plants. But how much would it cost to build them and the necessary infrastructure to transfer their energy to the grid?  And, moreover, how much would increasing hydropower capacity impact the environment and ecosystem services?

At the World Water Week in Stockholm this week, IIASA researcher Sylvain Leduc presented new research on the potential for hydropower in the Alps. As part of the recharge.green project, Leduc and colleagues are exploring the potential to increase hydropower production in the Alps. They are modeling potential locations for new plants as well as the potential costs and benefits of such construction.

The model takes into account slopes, water flows, power grid connections, existing hydropower plants, and the size of hydropower plants. And as in all the recharge.green work, the model also takes into account the potential impact on the services provided by the environment.

The research is also exploring the tradeoffs in plant size: large hydropower plants produce more energy and are more cost-effective, but they also might have a large impact on the environment. Smaller plants, in contrast, are more expensive for the amount of energy they produce, but usually have less of an impact on the environment. In some cases, though, even the environmental impact of small scale hydro plants is substantive: if you build a new hydropower plant in a previously undisturbed stream or river, you could impact an entire ecosystem, though small in size. Therefore, say the researchers, it is vital to consider the impacts of new plants on their environments.

To learn more, watch Leduc’s session, Valuation, Economics and Finance, which will be livestreamed at 14:00 CET via the World Water Week Web site or find his presentation here: WWW_Leduc_2014_06_04

While smaller hydropower plants usually have a smaller impact on the environment, location is key: building new plants in undisturbed ecosystems may have an outsized effect.

While smaller hydropower plants usually have a smaller impact on the environment, location is key: building new plants in undisturbed ecosystems may have an outsized effect.

    Katherine Leitzell

    About Katherine Leitzell

    Katherine Leitzell is a science writer at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), in Laxenburg Austria. IIASA researchers are working on the economic-ecological modelling for the recharge.green project.

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