Big hydropower has huge unintended consequences

Three Gorges Dam (Wikipedia)

Big hydropower dams are not only hugely destructive while being built, they have disastrous environmental consequences after completion.

Scientific American details the Three Gorges Dam Disaster in China in a 2008 article citing problems like less rain and more droughts, increased chance of earthquakes and landslides, and potential for spreading of disease.

The vast weight of water in the 410 mile long, 510 feet deep lake behind Three Gorges dam (or behind any huge man-made lake) forces water deep into cracks in the earth. When the water level drops because of dry conditions or releasing water, the weight lessens. Water pressure in the underground fissures drops. This can trigger earthquakes like those already documented at Oroville Dam in California. Additionally, the huge weight of water against the land enclosing the lake causes landslides and huge fissures.

Biodiversity is threaten by these huge dams (of which Three Gorges is the biggest) and of course hundreds of thousands of Chinese have been relocated, sometimes multiple times, as new landslides and fissures keep occurring.

The most alarming effect of big hydro is that it changes the weather, causing drought, as has happened with the Guri dam in Venezuela. The Chinese government denies Three Gorges has caused drought, but the evidence seems to prove them wrong. This is the ultimate unintended consequence. The dam was built to product hydroelectric power but by its very construction causes droughts, lessening the amount of water to create power with.

Yet governments blunder on. Brazil just approved the Belo Monto dam, which will be the third-largest in the world, displacing 20,000 people. This time will be different they presumably say. Or maybe they don’t much care what happens so long as some electricity gets generated for their hungry cities and politically connected contractors get huge contracts.

So, I wonder, if big hydro has so many unintended consequences, what will be the unintended consequences of installing solar power on tens of thousands of acres in California? Because there will probably be some. We think we understand and can control nature, but I’m not so sure we can.

Huge hydro power dams change the weather around them

Guri Dam, Venezuela

Guri, a ginormous hydro project in Venezuela, ended up producing far less power than anticipated. Bruce Krasting asked a friend at the World Bank what happened.

BK: Where’s the juice at Guri?

WB: Bad question to ask. The rainfall that historically fed the region has changed its pattern and annual flow. There are some who think that the enormous lake that was created changed the way the rain fell. Less water, less electicity.

BK: Incredible! Has this been proven? It would create a big stink if this were to come out.

WB: There will be no study. The dam has been built. No one wants to hear any bad news about this project. There are too many others like it being built around the world. The World Bank is promoting hydro power. We don’t want to tarnish what we build.

Why am I not surprised that the World Bank would be so ethically comatose that they would promote something they know is detrimental.

The deeply troubled Three Gorges dam area has been in drought since the dam was built. Many other huge hydro projects have had the same thing happen. It seems clear that the dams change the weather.

I conclude that if you mess with nature you’ll get messed back. Hard.

California’s installed renewable energy numbers may surprise you

If asked what type of renewable energy is most prevalent in California, most would choose solar or wind, but in reality, those two forms of renewable energy aren’t even close. Instead, the current California champion for renewable energy is geothermal, followed by small hydro. Say what?

As an example, on Wednesday May 4, 2011, geothermal energy production in California was 23,980 MWh, followed by small hydro with 13,210, then wind at 10,166. Solar power was last, with 3,094, behind biomass and biogas. Yes, that’s right, solar power produces the least amount of renewable energy, even as it (and wind) get most of the attention. Total renewables production for the day was 61,549 MWh against a total system demand of 670,435 MWh or about 9%. Clearly, California has a long way to go to meet its ambitious goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020.

These numbers are from California ISO, a non-profit that monitors and operates much of California’s high-voltage wholesale power grid. They post full details of renewable energy production each day at Renewables Watch and real time system demand overall at Today’s Outlook.

Read the rest of the article on CAIVN.

Why we need stored power for electricity

Bonneville Power may have to shut down wind turbines because too much power is being produced by wind and hydro. If they let excess water flow over spillways this could raise nitrogen levels in the water, harming fish. So instead, they will turn off the wind turbines.

If we had a grid that allowed large amounts of power to be stored, then excess generation capacity would be stored for later use rather than being problematic. The big problem with our grid is that generation always has to match capacity exactly, no power can be stored.