Hydropower is arguably the original renewable energy resource that we have been able to develop on a mass scale. It holds the largest share of worldwide electricity production out of any base that doesn’t include a fossil fuel. It creates so much energy with water movement that it was a point of emphasis for many countries throughout the 20th century.
Hydropower provides the opportunity to generate electricity without the creation of greenhouse gas emissions after the installation of the facility. The concrete and other materials may create a significant investment, but it is also possible to create long-term power to create massive net savings. Some of the facilities built over a century ago are still operating for this industry.
Those advantages can create significant disadvantages that could be problematic in some geographic areas. Many facilities create reservoirs that alter the natural landscape, changing habitats that initiate changes that are not always helpful.
That’s why these hydropower advantages and disadvantages must receive individualized consideration at each potential installation point.
List of the Advantages of Hydropower
1. Existing resources don’t make new contributions to climate change.
Hydropower provides the planet with a renewable energy resource. Since it uses our water resources to generate electricity, it lands in the same industries as solar, wind, and geothermal because it doesn’t require the ongoing combustion of fossil fuels. When correctly managed, the lakes and rivers that we use for this resource will not fade away.
Any form of moving water can generate the electricity we need since it creates turbine movement. That means small, community-sized resources could get built along the world’s creeks, streams, and other small bodies of water.
2. It contributes to reductions in smog, acid rain, and pollution.
When fuels combust to generate energy, the process can produce particulates, harmful gases, and other forms of pollution. This issue can lead to problems with smog, acid rain, and other forms of pollution. Regions that suffer from inversion issues can develop air quality issues at toxic levels when active coal-fired, natural gas, or oil fuels are used to generate electricity for the region.
Hydropower requires products that consume fossil fuels as they go through the manufacturing process. That causes them to release emissions in that manner, but it also reduces the long-term impact of continuous combustion. The nations with the highest levels of renewables that include this option tend to have the fewest issues with pollution.
3. Hydropower offers us a cost-competitive fuel resource to use.
Although hydropower receives classification as renewable energy, it is still a cost-competitive resource for us to use. The upfront costs can be massive even for small installations, so communities that can afford the billions in upfront capital can see clean energy rates that are at the same level as nuclear and coal.
The added benefit to this advantage is that the power generated by this fuel doesn’t go through the same commodity trading process that fossil fuels receive. We don’t need to worry about market volatility with hydropower, which means the cost of this resource becomes more predictable.
4. We can develop recreational opportunities from hydropower facilities.
The Three Gorges Dam is 50 stories high. It spans more than a mile, making it one of the world’s largest feats of modern engineering. When it operates at full capacity, it can hold back over 5 trillion gallons of water. Although the project flooded towns, historical sites and farmland at a cost of $24 billion, the recreational facilities and tourism opportunities will eventually help the project pay for itself.
Even if this benefit doesn’t appear, the Yangtze River is notoriously dangerous with its flooding activities. A 1998 event took the lives of over 4,000 people. With the dam in place, the extra water gets managed effectively with this project.
5. It creates additional revenue generation opportunities.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District generates roughly $1.2 million each year from the sale of waters found in various communities in the mountains and Western Slope of Colorado. Leases contribute another $250,000 for this rural area. Large facilities, such as Hoover Dam, can also generate tourism and hospitality revenues for its region. Although the purpose of each facility might be to generate electricity, there are also multiple ways to generate benefits for our communities.
6. Hydroelectricity generates development opportunities for rural communities.
When we build hydropower facilities, the best locations tend to be in rural areas. That means part of the project must include infrastructure development to support the equipment and labor resources needed for a successful outcome. These activities work to bring life to the local economy in these regions, creating better access to educational opportunities, healthcare options, and a better overall quality of life.
That’s why the investment into hydropower makes sense for most regions. Even if the expense involves billions of dollars of upfront capital, the economic gains are often equal to, if not greater, than what would be available without them.
7. New industries can develop from hydropower resources.
The lake that forms behind a dam creates new business opportunities for the entire region. It creates new real estate that is perfect for the hospitality industry. Recreational providers can offer hunting, fishing, and similar outdoor activities. It can produce a shoreline that can get turned into a beach for relaxation or swimming. We can certainly benefit from hydropower with the motion of water, but it can also be an integral component of our future facilities thanks to the reservoirs it creates.
8. Hydropower gives us an assist with our farming techniques.
Hydroelectric facilities have the capability to store a vast quantity of water for irrigation. When rainfall disappears for any reason, then local farmers can tap into this resource as a way to ensure that the yield remains profitable. It also gives us a way to store water for consumption and other uses because it works to shield the water table from exhaustion. That means our susceptibility to flooding or drought can get significantly reduced.
About 10% of the cropland in the United States receives irrigation that taps into stored water behind a dam. That means thousands of agricultural jobs are directly tied to the growth of crops from this resource.
9. It provides us with a fundamental opportunity to create sustainable development.
When we have the ability to institute and operate energy technologies that are sensible environmentally, then we have a chance to create a socially responsible and economically viable method of power generation. Sustainable development requires us to use a developmental model that meets our current needs without adversely impacting future generations. Hydropower is among those technologies because it can operate far into the future without creating significant impacts on the environment after its installation.
The best practices from the hydropower industry today support up to 40% of our irrigated areas, which means about 15% of the total food supply is available because of this technology and industry.
10. We can generate a lot of electricity by focusing on hydropower.
The United States ranks second in the world for the use of hydropower, coming behind only Canada in the amount of electricity that we produce. American dams can produce almost 104,000 megawatts of renewable energy for us to use each year. That means it can take care of about 12% of the power needs of the country.
When looking at this benefit globally, hydropower is responsible for about 20% of the world’s total electricity generation. It’s also creating about 70% of the renewable energy that we use each year.
11. Hydropower gives us a new resource for drinking water conservation.
Because the water that gets stored in a dam is fresh (not salt water), it gives us a way to provide drinking water resources to nearby communities. Many cities around the world get their water from nearby streams and rivers. When a reservoir fills up successfully, then more towns at a greater distance can tap into this resource if needed. Piping the water to each community is another economic wage generator that can produce numerous returns over time.
12. Dams are strong structures that we can successfully manage in difficult times.
Even when facilities get built in challenging locations, our engineering knowledge allows us to manage these situations successfully. When Hurricane Harvey blew into Texas, there were concerns that dams in the Houston area would get overwhelmed by the water that came into the area. Worries were that water would overflow some of the spillways, but control techniques allowed us to preserve that precipitation without massive damages.
The Three Gorges Dam is in a region with high levels of seismic activity. Small cracks have formed in the structure because of this issue, but we have the ability to repair these issues successfully instead of being forced to wait for it to fail.
List of the Disadvantages of Hydropower
1. Hydropower creates opportunities for political conflict.
The Renaissance Dam project on the. Nile River is sparking an ongoing dispute between Ethiopia’s developmental needs and water scarcity concerns in Egypt. Climate change is one of the primary drivers of this disadvantage, but there are also political issues to consider. Scarce resources and national boundaries create rights issues that can lead to potential conflict. Meetings have been so unproductive that neutral parties, including the United States, have been called in to mediate.
2. It changes the natural flow of water in the region.
The Nile River delta used to provide massive water resources to the entire region, creating fertile lands that required minimal irrigation with the ancient civilizations. As communities grew larger and flooding became problematic, dams along the river helped to control this issue at the expense of the natural geological development of the region. This region used to be the secret to Egypt’s wealth, but now it is under assault because of the need for hydropower resources.
75% of Ethiopia’s population lacks access to electricity. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam promises 6,000 megawatts of power with a $5 billion investment, but it also could alter the freshwater profile of the region.
3. Hydropower is an expensive resource to develop.
Power plants are expensive to build, no matter what type of energy resource it is that a community decides to use. Hydroelectric facilities tend to be on the upper level of this spectrum because of the logistical challenges and the foundational work that is necessary to have them operate. Although the long-term costs are less for this option because it requires less maintenance, it could be several billion dollars of investments before the facility can begin to take shape.
That means the hydropower facility must operate for a long time to recoup the money put into the construction of it, even when you consider all of the alternative revenue opportunities that it can generate. If the United States were to try to build Hoover Dam today, it would be a project worth at least $1 billion.
4. The presence of hydropower could lead to drought-like conditions.
One of the primary issues that must come under consideration when operating a hydropower facility is the impact it creates on local weather patterns. When a community pursues this resource, then the overall power and energy expense is entirely dependent upon the ongoing accessibility of water. Since these facilities often change the flow and level of a river, the impact on the environment can be significant.
That’s why the geographic location chosen for a facility is critically important to the process. If you’re clearing out a forest so that you can build a dam, then you’re removing the current and future photosynthesis potential of that region. It is an issue that can lead to weather pattern changes that can result in a higher risk for drought.
5. Most of the good locations have already been developed for hydropower.
From an American perspective, the availability of new hydropower dam sites is quite limited. Only specific geographic locations are well-suited to use this technology, which means the best sites have already gone through the developmental process. The others that could produce high levels of energy are off-limits for a variety of reasons. If we were to develop the current sites that remain, then it would provide marginal benefits at best, and the environmental costs could be greater than the affordable electricity we could generate.
6. Dams can damage rivers.
When we place a dam on a river, then it naturally disrupts the flow of water. That’s the only way it is possible to fill a reservoir behind the facility. This action can degrade the water quality in the region, block the movement of sediment and critical nutrients, and destroy wildlife habitats. Even when we take the time to install salmon ladders and other bypass options for marine life, the results are not as beneficial as they would be if we allowed the water to flow naturally.
The presence of a reservoir causes the movement of a river to get slower as it becomes wider. That makes the water become warmer. This disruption of the biome might offer recreational opportunities, but it can also be devastating to marine life. With 11 dams on the Mekong mainstream, direct losses of 880,000 tons of fish are possible by 2030.
7. Hydropower creates a risk of flooding for those who live downstream.
The risk of a dam failure can be quite high in some regions. Anyone who lives downstream from a facility lives with a higher risk of flooding if a failure were to occur. About 200 notable examples of this disadvantage happen every decade, and it can happen anywhere in the world. The Teton Dam is a prime example of American failure.
This earthen dam was built by the Bureau of Reclamation in Idaho after a severe drought impacted the region. Lawsuits were filed in the early 1970s to stop its construction, but the work went on anyway. The dam would fail on June 5, 1976, taking the lives of 11 people and 13,000 cattle. Total damages were in the range of $2 billion.
8. Changes to the local biome can cause greenhouse gas emissions.
Although the facility itself doesn’t generate greenhouse gas emissions once all of the materials go through the manufacturing process, the reservoir behind a facility can create problems. Some facilities emit vast quantities of methane and carbon dioxide because of the death of organic material. When rotting occurs under the water, then a vast amount of pollution can develop in those areas.
9. Hydropower facilities can displace a lot of people.
The construction of large dams around the world displaces a lot of people. Up to 80 million individuals have found themselves being forced to move because of the construction of a dam and reservoir. Although the governments of the world help in the resettlement effort, most of the programs aren’t adequate enough to meet household needs. That means families tend to be worse off than they were before the construction activities started.
Almost 500 million people who live downstream from a dam experienced adverse impacts by the changes in river flow. Although the cheap electricity and availability of water are positive attributes of hydropower to consider, it doesn’t always translate to an improved income or direct benefits for local communities.
10. Dams can increase the risk of disease development in some communities.
Research from CGIAR’s program on water, land, and ecosystems found that the construction of dams in sub-Saharan Africa elevated the risk of malaria for over 15 million people. Over 1,200 facilities help to cause at least 1.1 million more infections than would be present without this technology. These numbers could triple by 2100 if measures aren’t taken to mitigate mosquito growth.
Some wildlife cannot use the bypass technologies that we install around hydropower facilities because it is an issue that falls outside of their natural development. This issue occurs most often in fast-moving currents, and the presence of dead organic material can also lead to disease development issues in time.
11. Hydropower facilities can encourage more erosion.
After the construction of a dam is complete, there can be issues of erosion that develop in the surrounding land. The Three Gorges Dam is experiencing issues along their nearby shoreline, leading to landslides that happen in the newly-formed basin near the reservoir. The Nile Delta experiences this issue because there’s a reduction of sediment that flows through the region because of the facilities on the river. That means less land is available to manage as the area fills and blockages remain.
When we look at our current energy consumption processes, it is clear to see that today’s decisions will impact tomorrow’s civilizations. If we can change our habits to encourage the ozone layer to repair itself, then it is entirely possible for us to tackle a tough subject like climate change or global warming. Hydropower could be the solution we need for these circumstances.
Our rivers and streams are excellent options for transportation. Dams and locks allow vessels to safely navigate along these corridors to deliver goods and services. Regions like the Great Lakes build economies from these activities. Hydropower gives us access to thousands of direct employment opportunities and many more indirect positions.
When we look at these hydropower advantages and disadvantages, it is essential to remember that every action we take has an equal and opposite reaction. We must be ready to manage the potential negatives that exist with this technology to maximize its benefits. If we can be consistent with this approach, then this clean energy resource can lead us into the next century.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.