Alaska has incredible potential for hydropower, when it’s done right


When you flip a light switch in Alaska, do you know where the electricity comes from? It doesn’t all come from the same place.

While natural gas and oil account for most of the state’s electricity, more than a fifth comes from renewables.

In fact, Alaska’s goal calls for producing half of the state’s energy with renewables such as solar, wind, tidal and hydropower by the year 2025. As Alaskans, we’re eager to get there. What Alaska community doesn’t seek low-cost, clean and reliable energy options? And given the changes we are seeing to our climate, we’re increasingly aware of the imperative for carbon-neutral energy sources.

Currently, 20 percent of Alaska’s electrical production, compared to 7 percent for the U.S. as a whole comes from hydropower. In Alaska, opportunities to tap the energy of flowing water still cover the map.

At the same time, Alaska has a particularly special relationship with its rivers: Our state produces more salmon than any place on Earth. Salmon are a mainstay of our state’s economy and they’re essential to the Alaska way of life. Fortunately, science has already taught us what salmon need to thrive.

For hydropower to make sense here, it needs to pass an Alaska litmus test: Developing hydropower cannot come at the expense of salmon.

The next step, then, is to conceive, design and operate all hydropower projects with salmon in mind from the very beginning so that they meet these criteria:

• Hydropower projects should avoid salmon streams whenever possible;
• Hydropower projects must allow fish to migrate freely, both upstream and downstream;
• River flows must not be altered beyond minimum and maximum thresholds that allow fish populations to thrive;
• Development must allow for the downstream transport of the river’s natural sediment and wood — a key function of a healthy river; and
• A dam must be designed and operated in a way that doesn’t alter downstream water temperatures.

Our analysis — in the form of an ecological risk assessment of hydropower development on large braided rivers with salmon — shows large dams would have a hard time meeting these criteria.

There’s good news too: It’s entirely possible for an Alaska hydropower project to pass our litmus test. In fact, many already have.

To list just a few examples: Near Valdez, the Allison Creek hydroelectric project now under construction is a run-of-river development — that is, it doesn’t block fish or the river’s natural sediment. Projects at Blue Lake near Sitka and Black Bear Lake on Prince of Wales Island generate electricity on systems where salmon aren’t present. Cordova’s Power Creek run-of-river hydropower project is built upstream from spawning areas and allows natural sediment to travel downstream. Energy from Alaska’s 50 licensed hydropower facilities displaces millions of gallons of fossil fuels annually, at a big savings for communities.

Alaska has already come far, but we can do more. Our state’s own renewable energy goal challenges us to do so.

Worldwide hydropower production is expected to double over the next 20 years. We’re not envisioning a new boom in megaprojects like those of the past. Instead, smaller, more efficient and far less environmentally damaging technologies are gaining momentum. Alaska is poised to help lead the new era of sustainable hydropower.

The time for unleashing innovation and a healthy dose of Alaska know-how is now. So long as we take care of the natural assets that have always provided for us, we’ll have a bright future ahead.

Diverse Species Of World’s Largest Lake Threatened By Mongolian Dam And Pipeline

Mongolia is hoping a massive dam on its largest river could provide much needed power and water for the country’s booming mining industry. However environmental groups are concerned that the hydroelectric power plant and a related pipeline project will do immeasurable environmental damage to oldest and deepest freshwater body in the world: Lake Baikal.

As Baikal sits just over the border in Russia, Mongolia risks seriously annoying its northern neighbour at at time when the lake is already experiencing problems with invasive algaealong its coasts, unregulated mining and a water level which just passed a “critically low” point.

The Shuren Hydropower Plant, planned on the Selenga River in northern Mongolia, was firstproposed in 2013 and is currently the subject of a World Bank-funded environmental and social impact assessment. In tandem, Mongolia is also considering building one of the world’s largest pipelines to transport water from the Orkhon River, one of the Selenga’s tributaries, to supply the miners in the Gobi desert 1,000km away.

Baikal’s depths are home to some odd and unique creatures. CSIRO

The impact of these projects will be most keenly felt downstream in Lake Baikal. The lake formed in a tectonic rift zone more than 25m years ago in southern Siberia. With a maximum depth of almost 1,700m, Baikal contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater.

Due to it’s great age, depth and remote location, more than 2,500 species have been documented in the lake, of which more than 75% are believed to be endemic and are found nowhere else in the world – from the microscopic plants that provide the lake with most of its energy to one of the world’s few truly freshwater seals, the nerpa or Pusa sibirica. Because of its unique characteristics and biodiversity, Lake Baikal was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The Selenga is itself an important ecosystem. Anson Mackay

By far the largest and most important of the 350-plus rivers that flow into Lake Baikal is the Selenga River, which contributes almost 50% of the lake’s water. The Selenga and its tributaries cover a vast area, much of it in northern Mongolia, and the catchment of Lake Baikal is bigger than Spain. The river enters Lake Baikal through the Selenga Delta, a wetland of internationally recognised importance.

The delta is crucial to the health of Lake Baikal. Its shallow waters are a key spawning ground for Baikal’s many endemic fish and is on the migratory route for millions of birds every year. It also filters out impurities flowing through the river before they reach the lake.

The Selenga drains much of northern Mongolia into Lake Baikal. kmusserCC BY-SA

The Shuren dam isn’t the only threat to the delta, but it may be the most important. The Selenga is already very polluted; mining for gold and other minerals in northern Mongolia has resulted in elevated levels of heavy metals in the water. Sewage and waste-water treatment plants along its banks are often old, leading to elevated concentrations of nutrients and other contaminants.

However, actually disrupting the river flow into the Selenga delta and Lake Baikal has the potential to cause untold damage to the lake and its life. Any lowering of the delta’s shallow waters will disrupt the spawning grounds of many endemic fish species – and other species, including birds and aquatic insects will lose their homes.

Biodiversity loss has the potential to degrade Baikal’s unique ecosystems, resulting in severe economic implications for local and regional economies. Such is the concern that several environmental NGOs such as Rivers Without Boundaries and academics from Mongolia and Russia have lodged a request for the World Bank to be investigated as they claim the bank is disregarding its own regulations by funding an assessment for a project on a unique river system that is home to endangered species. The Russian Security Council, which advises the president on national security issues, has also voiced its concern.

But Russia cannot be let off the hook either. In the early 1950s, a hydroelectric dam was built in the city of Irkutsk on the Angara River, Lake Baikal’s only outflow. On completion, the water levels of Lake Baikal increased by more than a metre, flooding almost 150,000ha of land, displacing 15,000 people and disrupting the Selenga delta spawning grounds. More recently, the Irkutsk dam has been implicated (along with lower than expected rainfall) in contributing to some of Lake Baikal’s lowest water levels for several decades.

But these problems may pale into insignificance if the Shuren Hydropower Plant and the Orkhon-Gobi Water Diversion schemes in Mongolia get the green light.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What Does Australia’s New 2030 Climate Target Mean For The Local Coal Industry?

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised that his government’s new 2030 climate target will be good for the environment, good for jobs and good for protecting the nation’s coal industry.

After announcing Australia would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, the prime minister was asked about what impact that could have on the local coal industry. He replied:

We are not assuming a massive close-down of coal. In fact, one of the things that will benefit the world in the years and decades to come is if there is a greater use of Australian coal, because high-quality Australian coal as opposed to low-quality local coal is going to help other countries to, if not reduce their emissions, certainly reduce their emissions intensity.

One of the reasons why China is forecast to substantially reduce its intensity, if not its overall emissions, is because it is forecast to rely increasingly on coal from countries such as Australia…

We certainly aren’t forecasting the demise of coal. Our policy doesn’t depend upon the demise of coal. In fact, the only way to protect the coal industry is to go with the sorts of policies that we have. That’s why I think our policies are not only good for the environment but very good for jobs.

Australia currently gets three-quarters of its electricity from burning coal – but most of the nation’s coal production, particularly from New South Wales and Queensland mines, is for global exports.

The Conversation asked a panel of energy experts for their forecasts for Australian coal in the light of the 2030 target and the upcoming climate talks in Paris. (You can also read why experts have warned Australia’s post-2020 climate target isn’t enough to stop 2C warming.)

ANU research associate and pitt&sherry consultant Hugh Saddler on rebounding coal and emissions

Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory for 2012-13 shows that 29% of Australia’s total emissions came from coal used to generate electricity. Other fuels, mainly gas, used to generate electricity add another 5%, bringing the electricity industry’s share of total national emissions up to 34%.

More than half of these coal emissions come from power stations that are now more than 25 years old. Closing these old power stations and replacing them with wind, solar and possibly some gas generation is technically completely feasible and, on the basis of the best current cost data, would cost less than replacing them with new coal-fired power stations. It is clear, therefore, that reducing the share of coal in Australia’s electricity generation is one of the lowest-cost ways of achieving large emission reductions.

Reducing emissions would be made easier if demand for electricity were reduced, by increasing the efficiency of electricity use. We know that this can be done.

Between 2009 and 2013, the combination of falling demand for electricity and a switch of electricity generation away from coal and towards wind, solar and gas resulted in an emissions reduction of 24 Mt CO2-e, equal to 4% of Australia’s emissions in 2009.

Greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s electricity sector are rising again. pitt&sherry Carbon Emissions Index (CEDEX®),, Author provided

Now, however, demand for electricity and the share of coal in total generation are both increasing. Both will have to turn around if Australia is to achieve the proposed emission reductions.

The vertical lines on this graph indicate the period when Australia had a carbon price in place, from July 2012 to July 2014.pitt&sherry Carbon Emissions Index (CEDEX®),, Author provided

CQUniversity resource economist and Deputy Dean of Research, School of Business & Law, John Rolfe, on Australia’s coal exports

Factors that reduce the demand for fossil fuels are likely to have some negative impact on the demand for Australian coal, although it remains to be seen how big the issue will be. It is worth noting that Australia exports roughly equivalent amounts of metallurgical coal for steelmaking and thermal coal for power generation; it is only the latter commodity that would be impacted.

In 2013-14, Australia produced 180.8 million tonnes of metallurgical coal and exported it all, and 245 million tonnes of thermal coal, exporting 195 million tonnes, or 80% of production.

If the change in emissions policy only affects Australian domestic demand for coal, then it is possible that some of the 20% of current production that is used for domestic power supply could decline. The extent to which that decline in domestic consumption affects the industry remains uncertain.

Currently, predictions for growth in international demand mean that thermal coal exports from Australia are predicted to increase. The latest Resources and Energy Quarterly from the Australian government pegs the likely increase in thermal coal production to be more than 13% by 2020, with all of the increase going to export markets.

But if Australian power generators reduce their demand for coal further at the same time that international demands grow, then it is likely that growth in production will be slower and there will be some substitution into export markets.

RMIT senior industry fellow and energy-efficiency expert Alan Pears on the risks ahead

For local demand, the main driver is electricity. Since the removal of carbon pricing, with increases in gas prices and the need for hydro generators to allow their dams to refill (after cashing in on the carbon price by generating as much as possible), coal has recovered some market share. But this is very much a short-term situation.

First, it is very unlikely that any new coal-fired electricity generators will be built: they are risky, take a long time to build at a time of extreme uncertainty, and can’t compete with new renewable generation.

But even to meet its weak proposed [2030] target, the government will have to support further adoption of energy-efficiency measures. It has also shown it is not prepared to take on the rooftop PV industry, because too many votes are at risk. But a weak carbon cap and/or no carbon price does allow existing coal plants to generate more for longer, emitting more carbon dioxide.

The International Energy Agency’s 450 parts per million scenario suggests that global demand for coal would need to drop by around 30% by 2035 to limit warming to 2C. If Australia’s customer countries act consistent with this global target, it is clear that our coal export industry will decline significantly.

On top of that, the economics of improving energy efficiency and renewable energy are continually improving. So recent declines in share value of major global coal companies such as Peabody Energy are not surprising.

University of Western Australia Winthrop Professor of Finance, Accounting and Finance Richard Heaney on replacing existing coal power

Yes, I do think the Australian and international targets could have an impact. Sequestration does not seem to be providing the solution to the carbon problems associated with coal.

If we are to meet the targets our coal usage will need to fall and this leads to a search for alternatives like solar, wind, hot rock, nuclear or less carbon intensive alternative like natural gas or unconventional gas.

Many of Australia’s existing coal fired power plants are nearing the end of their economic lives, so this is a great time to reconsider the sources of energy that we tap into.

As for global demand for Australian coal between now and 2030, it’s difficult to say. If Australia decides to use less coal then this will have an impact on Australian coal production, particularly in areas like the Latrobe Valley for example. It will affect coal exports if the big importing countries like China are able to reduce coal consumption and maintain an adequate growth rate.

The University of Queensland energy economics researcher Lynette Molyneaux on how others nations will shape what happens in Australia

Australia exports around 80% of the coal that it mines. So while a carbon dioxide emission cut by 2035 will undoubtedly affect electricity production from coal, the impact on the industry from reduced electricity production will be comparatively small.

The far bigger exposure to the coal industry will be from global target setting. Australia and Indonesia dominate the export market. Between them they export more than 50% of world’s coal. However, the USA is a far bigger coal producer than Australia. With the USA seeking to limit electricity production from coal, US coal producers will be in the hunt for international buyers, possibly creating significant competition for Australian coal producers. Australia has always sold its coal on its higher quality (higher energy content and lower sulfur). That was possible against Indonesian coal but would not necessarily apply to coal from the USA.

So, if importing countries like India and China do not set targets, coal producers will continue hunting for opportunities there and Australia – with its good-quality coal and proximity to Asia – will be relatively well placed. If, however, India and China themselves set emission reduction targets that reduce their demand for coal generally, then Australia’s coal industry may well be significantly impacted by their target setting.

Australia’s coal industry is at the mercy of global consensus on climate change, not really Australia’s emission targets.

Easing Drought Boosts California Hydropower, For Now


The easing of California’s drought has boosted the state’s early spring hydropower generation to its highest level since 2011, helping it to recover from a 15-year low reached last year. But hydroelectricity production is not expected to improve much overall this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The West’s four-year drought desiccated many reservoirs in California, the nation’s fourth largest hydropower producer, reducing their ability to generate electricity and forcing the state to rely on other renewables and more fossil fuels for its power supply.

Prior to the drought, hydropower produced nearly 40 percent of the state’s electricity during wet years, with natural gas producing most of the rest. Today, about 11 percent of the state’s electricity comes from hydropower and 52 percent comes from natural gas, with wind, solar and nuclear producing much of the rest.

Though hydropower generated at large reservoirs is not included in California’s climate goals, it is a major source of renewable electricity that helps offset the country’s reliance on coal for electricity.

California passed a law last year requiring 50 percent of the state’s power to come from wind, solar, biomass, geothermal energy and small hydroelectric sources by 2050.
California’s hydropower boost follows El Niño-fueled storms, which marched across the state over the winter, helping to fill some reservoirs to above their historical averages, state data show.Since the drought began in 2012, Californians burned an additional $2 billion worth of natural gas to make up for lost hydropower, increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s electric power sector by 10 percent, said water and climate analyst Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, a global water think tank.

Tim Shear, an economist at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said the state’s hydropower production in March — 2.77 million megawatt hours — was the highest of any March since 2011.

Hydropower generation usually peaks each summer when reservoirs are swollen with snowmelt and rainfall. The 2015 peak occurred in July at about 1.9 million megawatt hours, the lowest annual peak since 2001.

Nearly-full reservoirs point to more hydropower generation for the short term, but it may not continue through through the summer.

Though the U.S. Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal outlook shows that California is likely to receive average rainfall this summer, warmer-than-normal temperatures are expected, which will help evaporate water stored in hydroelectric reservoirs.

Gleick said he expects that California’s hydropower generation will recover only marginally this year.

“Northern California received about an average amount of rainfall, but the reservoirs were extremely low and so less than an average amount of water was let go through the turbines,” he said. “I would estimate that 2015-2016 will be below average (for) hydropower again, though certainly better than last year.”