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The rate of global hydropower development missed the mark in 2021 and is expected to fall short in 2022 as well. To support our global energy transition to clean renewable resources, the backbone of the energy grid needs to be supported by hydropower, but it is currently off-track. So, what needs to happen? 

According to the 2021 IEA report, to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, nearly 70% of our electricity supply needs to come from wind and solar power—a low carbon emission generation source. Although sustainable and realistic to develop this installed capacity, the grid requires further support as wind and solar are not dispatchable sources of power; the projected greatest dispatchable capacity and generation levels will need to come from hydropower, including development of longer-duration pumped storage hydropower needed to complement wind and solar generation. 

Hitting renewable energy transition targets

To achieve this mark, as noted in the recently released 2022 IHA Hydropower Status Report, 45 GW of installed capacity is required globally each year up to 2050. In 2021, only 26 GW was installed, most of which was developed in China. The global rate of capacity development is not accelerating to meet this need for a clean energy future. 

Even if the 45 GW mark was hit this year, the distribution of capacity development is unequal—each country and region has an integrated energy generation and transmission system, but developing capacity in China doesn't help Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Ideally, development should be distributed to equally support major systems, which presently is falling short. 

It's not for a lack of potential development capacity. According to the 2022 IHA report, globally and on each individual continent, there is more than sufficient identified generating capacity to achieve and exceed the levels needed for net-zero emissions by 2050. Sites that have been identified but not developed earlier should be reconsidered. Governments need to support the increased development of sustainable hydropower through incentives and tax breaks, as they have historically for fossil-fuel facilities, recognizing the urgency of our transition and the key benefits hydropower offers to integrate with other renewable energy sources. 

Hydropower as a climate resilience solution

Sustainable development of hydropower has been demonstrated around the world—this can be done, the technology is currently available, and hydropower is the lowest source of carbon-generating dispatchable energy. It's time to build the systems to support rapid growth, support expediting review and approval, and create mechanisms to encourage development of new sustainable hydropower globally. The reality is that 2050 is just around the corner, and we must begin now. 

Learn more about our work in the hydropower sector and climate resilience solutions from our Center for Climate Solutions

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Jonathan Quebbeman (Senior Water Resources Engineer) and Shaun Carney (Senior Research Environmental Engineer) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.