“The primary purpose of hydroelectric power is to support wind and solar energy. If hydroelectric power becomes unreliable, India may need to consider alternative options, including increasing its reliance on coal-fired power,” -Victor Vanya, the director at EMA Solutions.
Hydropower, often referred to as the “blue gold” of energy generation, flows through our lives with a quiet, yet profound significance. From its humble origins as the waterwheel-turning grain mills in ancient civilizations to the modern marvels of massive hydroelectric dams, hydropower has not only harnessed the power of nature but has also shaped the course of human progress. As the Earth’s climate grows ever more precarious and the demand for clean, reliable energy escalates, the significance of hydropower becomes not just evident but imperative.
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However, recently, Asia’s two biggest powerhouses- China and India have witnessed an acute hydropower crunch in decades. Consequently, power regulators are increasingly resorting to fossil fuels to manage the challenges stemming from volatile electricity demand and erratic weather conditions. These two countries dominate Asia’s energy generation, contributing to around three-quarters of it and a substantial portion of its pollution. They are also somewhat embracing renewable energy sources to offset the reduced hydropower production and tackle the growing demand for electricity.
Impact of Fossil Fuel and Usage of Renewable energy
Recent years have seen major Asian economies grappling with power deficits attributed to extreme weather conditions, such as intense heat and diminished precipitation. All these have impacted significant areas in northern China, Vietnam, eastern India, and the northern parts of India.
A growing dependence on pollution-intensive fuels, such as coal, to manage spikes in electricity demand and supply gaps, underscores the challenges associated with emissions reduction. Ember, an energy think tank, reported a 17.9% decline in Asia’s hydropower generation over the seven months ending in July, juxtaposed with a 4.5% rise in fossil fuel-powered electricity.
Carlos Torres Diaz, Rystad Energy’s director of power and gas markets, noted, “While solar and wind power generation in Asia has experienced immense growth, fossil-fuel thermal power plants have also ramped up their output this year due to a significant drop in hydropower generation.”
“In light of extensive and prolonged heatwaves across the region, which have led to dwindling reservoir levels, there has been an increased reliance on alternative power sources to meet the rising demand,” he added.
Overcoming Obstacles in China’s Hydropower Industry
China’s hydropower era began with the construction of Shilongba in 1912. Nevertheless, the subsequent decades witnessed challenges in the expansion of hydropower stations across the country.
The latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics indicates that China’s hydroelectricity generation recorded its most substantial decrease in at least 32 years, plummeting by 15.9% during the eight months ending in August. China addressed the hydroelectric power deficit and surging electricity demand primarily by ramping up fossil fuel-based electricity production, registering a 6.1% increase in the eight months leading to August. Renewable energy generation in China surged by 22%.
India’s Hydropower Situation
India saw a sharp decline of 6.2% in hydropower generation over the eight months leading up to August, marking the steepest decrease since 2016. Government data analysis revealed that its share of the overall power production reached its lowest point in at least 19 years, standing at only 9.2%.
India increased electricity generation from fossil fuels by 12.4% and renewable output grew by 18%, but far from a smaller base.
Hydropower Decline in Other Asian Economies
Hydropower production also saw a significant drop in several major Asian nations, such as India and Vietnam, in addition to the Philippines and Malaysia. In Vietnam, according to Ember data, the proportion of power generated from hydropower decreased by over 10 percentage points until July, while coal’s contribution to power generation increased by roughly the same amount.
The decline in hydropower output in certain instances stemmed from efforts aimed at water conservation and modifying supply patterns. According to Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Clean Energy and Air, Chinese authorities urged dam operators to maintain water levels as power consumption surged due to heatwaves.
Wind and Solar Challenges
Hydropower possesses the advantage of being able to swiftly adjust to sudden fluctuations in demand, unlike other sources like wind and solar. Myllyvirta mentioned that authorities used it more for grid balancing rather than maximizing overall generation. He pointed out, “The escalating adoption of wind and solar energy in China could prompt hydropower to assume this critical regulatory function, regardless of water availability.”
Wind and solar power generation in Asia rose by 21% during the seven months leading up to July. This increase brought the share of renewable energy in the total energy output to 13.5%, up from 11.5% the previous year. In contrast to hydroelectric power, wind energy presents challenges in forecasting and control due to its dependence on local weather conditions. Additionally, the absence of solar power during nighttime hours exacerbates energy shortages, especially in countries like India.
India has managed to virtually eliminate daytime power interruptions this year, despite facing unprecedented demand, primarily due to its significant growth in renewable energy capacity over the years. Nonetheless, it had to turn to higher-priced natural gas imports to ease the burden on its coal-powered electricity generation.
“The primary purpose of hydroelectric power is to support wind and solar energy. If hydroelectric power becomes unreliable, India may need to consider alternative options, including increasing its reliance on coal-fired power,” explained Victor Vanya, who serves as the director at EMA Solutions, a power analytics firm.
To conclude, fossil fuels, with their environmental costs, have stepped in to bridge the gap, but at what price? The growing reliance on coal and other pollutants casts a shadow over the path to a cleaner, greener future. As we stand at this crossroads, it is clear that hydropower, once the backbone of Asian energy generation, must reinvent itself. It must not only recover its lost glory but adapt to a changing climate and energy landscape. The “blue gold” must once again shine brightly.