Renewable Revolution Can Fundamentally Alter Energy-River Equation

Stock SectorMarch 30, 201812min10
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Jeff Opperman

A river dolphin surfaces in front of a fishing boat during cooperative fishing on the Irrawaddy River.

What was supposed to be the highlight of my recent trip to Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River wasn’t happening.

But even though my lower back ached from an hour of hunching forward in a narrow canoe, my legs awkwardly jammed into the bow, I kept saying no when the guide asked if I wanted to head back.

And then it happened.

A group of river dolphins began surfacing in an arc around the other boat in our group. &nbsp;A fisherman standing on its prow called out to them in a strange, guttural language.

Suddenly, a single dolphin jolted out of the water — backward — and wagged its tail vigorously: here, throw the net here.

And the fishermen did — because the dolphin had just told them where the fish were, after having herded them there (see short video).

Why solar panels could save the river dolphin—and alter our assumptions about hydropower

It was one of the most amazing things you can witness on a river.&nbsp; And like many of those amazing things — Mekong catfish the size of grizzly bears, salmon so abundant they darken the water — the cooperative fishing between people and dolphins on the Irrawaddy may be slipping away, in part due to hydropower development.

But some things you’d never associate with dolphins might be coming to their rescue — and also redefining the future of the world’s rivers:

Solar power. And molten salt.

That’s because the global renewable revolution — solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids, and storage technologies such as batteries and molten salt — is today giving many countries an unprecedented range of options for meeting their growing electricity demands beyond hydropower…or in strategic coordination with it.

As countries develop, they seek reliable, domestic, low-cost electricity delivered from mature technologies. To date, that’s often spelled hydropower, by far the world’s largest source of renewable electricity. (In 2017, hydropower generated 17% of global electricity and 70% of global renewable electricity).

But while all energy development has social and environmental impacts, among renewables, those from hydropower can be particularly severe: think of the 1.3 million people displaced by the reservoir of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Hydropower projects also contributed to the dramatic decline of wild salmon across Europe and the United States as well as the looming extinction of river dolphins and giant catfish in the Mekong — along with a projected 40 percent loss of the Mekong’s fishery, the largest freshwater fishery in the world and one that sustains tens of millions of people.

The benefits of hydropower dams are often accompanied by these immense trade-offs, such as the loss of globally unique places and resources (including the sinking and shrinking of vitally important river deltas).&nbsp; Governments have consistently been willing to accept these trade-offs because their needs for electricity were so great and other options so few.

But the renewable revolution is increasing those other options.

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Jeff Opperman

A river dolphin surfaces in front of a fishing boat during cooperative fishing on the Irrawaddy River.

What was supposed to be the highlight of my recent trip to Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River wasn’t happening.

But even though my lower back ached from an hour of hunching forward in a narrow canoe, my legs awkwardly jammed into the bow, I kept saying no when the guide asked if I wanted to head back.

And then it happened.

A group of river dolphins began surfacing in an arc around the other boat in our group.  A fisherman standing on its prow called out to them in a strange, guttural language.

Suddenly, a single dolphin jolted out of the water — backward — and wagged its tail vigorously: here, throw the net here.

And the fishermen did — because the dolphin had just told them where the fish were, after having herded them there (see short video).

Why solar panels could save the river dolphin—and alter our assumptions about hydropower

It was one of the most amazing things you can witness on a river.  And like many of those amazing things — Mekong catfish the size of grizzly bears, salmon so abundant they darken the water — the cooperative fishing between people and dolphins on the Irrawaddy may be slipping away, in part due to hydropower development.

But some things you’d never associate with dolphins might be coming to their rescue — and also redefining the future of the world’s rivers:

Solar power. And molten salt.

That’s because the global renewable revolution — solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids, and storage technologies such as batteries and molten salt — is today giving many countries an unprecedented range of options for meeting their growing electricity demands beyond hydropower…or in strategic coordination with it.

As countries develop, they seek reliable, domestic, low-cost electricity delivered from mature technologies. To date, that’s often spelled hydropower, by far the world’s largest source of renewable electricity. (In 2017, hydropower generated 17% of global electricity and 70% of global renewable electricity).

But while all energy development has social and environmental impacts, among renewables, those from hydropower can be particularly severe: think of the 1.3 million people displaced by the reservoir of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Hydropower projects also contributed to the dramatic decline of wild salmon across Europe and the United States as well as the looming extinction of river dolphins and giant catfish in the Mekong — along with a projected 40 percent loss of the Mekong’s fishery, the largest freshwater fishery in the world and one that sustains tens of millions of people.

The benefits of hydropower dams are often accompanied by these immense trade-offs, such as the loss of globally unique places and resources (including the sinking and shrinking of vitally important river deltas).  Governments have consistently been willing to accept these trade-offs because their needs for electricity were so great and other options so few.

But the renewable revolution is increasing those other options.

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