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Big Hydro Falls Behind

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The big hydro industry always used to consider the "new renewables" as Mickey Mouse technologies that could never match the billions of kilowatt hours humming through the lines linked up to the world's megadams.

But times have changed. Big Hydro is learning that lots of small projects can add up to a lot more juice than a small number of very big ones.

In 2002, new installations of wind power worldwide exceeded the capacity of new big hydro for the first time ever. Wind power engineers installed more megawatts than their big hydro competitors three times over the following six years. And in 2009, it looks like wind power blew (so to speak) big hydro right out of the water.

Solar installations are rising even faster than wind, but from a much lower level. Solar installers added nearly half as many panels in 2009 as the year before, making solar the world's fastest growing power source.

The 2009, wind and solar numbers come from BP's recently released "Statistical Review of World Energy 2010." (The "Cost of Energy" blog notes that the review provides "a veritable gusher of data and an undersea volcano of graphs, all summarized in a blowout of an Excel spreadsheet.")

British Petroleum
's review doesn't provide large hydro data and no 2009 data are available elsewhere. But data on trends in new big hydro capacity from the last decade suggests that 2009 wind installations were likely at least a quarter more than big hydro -- and that the dammers will never again get close to wind power's annual additions.

Of course, the dam builders have been steadily blocking more and more rivers every year for more than a century, so today hydropower still generates a lot more electricity each year than the wind or sun. But the trend is definitely in favor of the new renewables rather the old and often non-renewable (big hydro with reservoirs is not renewable because reservoirs eventually get clogged with sediments).

Indeed, the percentage of the world's electricity generated by hydropower has fallen over the past decade from 19% in the 1990s to around 16% today. (This declining hydrodependency means that the world's energy supply is slowly becoming less vulnerable to climate-change induced droughts).

The fact that wind is now a bigger and more dynamic industry than hydro is more than just symbolic of the times a changin'. It means that the new renewables industries will increasingly have more economic and political clout and that the lobbying power of Big Hydro will steadily wane. (It also means that the new renewables industries will also inevitably be able to wield their power in self-interested ways that are detrimental to the greater good. Wind and solar executives can no doubt be just as corrupt and greedy as can their hydro counterparts. But the technologies that they push will not be as inherently destructive as river-wrecking and community-evicting and often greenhouse gas belching big dams).

Of course, by far the biggest part of our non-renewable electricity comes from CO2-spewing coal. It is no exaggeration to call coal the great enemy of humanity and life as we know it. So thank goodness that the era of big coal, like the era of big river-wrecking hydro, may be gradually coming to an end. Some solar industry executives believe their technology will be generating electricity as cheaply as coal plants in a few years time - and even the always-conservative International Energy Agency predicts solar as being cost-competitive within a decade.

Given that the financial cost of big-dam hydroelectricity is in the same ballpark as coal, solar is also going to soon be competitive with big hydro dams. And given that it can easily take 7-10 years for the planning and construction of a megadam, it means that dams currently in the planning phase could find themselves financially obsolete from their first day of operation.

The energy revolution is happening. We just need to do all we can to make it happen as quickly as possible.

[A graphic and spreadsheet and some more analysis of the data behind this blog is available on my International Rivers blog]

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