The Costs and Benefits of Hydro Electricity

On an early spring evening in southwestern Albania, Taulant Hazizaj walks between silver-gray olive trees near the Vjosa River. Farms sprawl over the wide river valley, swatches of irrigated green giving way to the rocky swell of surrounding hills. He points to an ancient tree, whose gnarled trunk is wider than a man’s outstretched arms. “This village has been here for 2,000 years,” Hazizaj says of his hometown, Kuta, tucked above the water’s edge. But in 2016, the Albanian government sold a concession to build a dam a few miles downstream, and now this olive grove, and much of the valley — including the village itself — may soon be underwater.

“If the dam is built, all of that will be gone,” Hazizaj says.

Winding his way back to the town center, he passes a cemetery where centuries-old tombstones lean into the evening breeze. If the dam is built, the graves will have to be relocated. “My dad said, ‘One olive tree is like a son.’” Hazizaj recollects. He looks back over his shoulder at the river.

Widely regarded as Europe’s last wild river, the Vjosa is fed by dozens of mountain tributaries, running 169 miles from the Pindus mountains of northern Greece to the Adriatic Sea. So far, it remains undammed, but a total of 31 dams are projected to be built along the river and its tributaries in coming years. That has both developers and environmentalists squaring off over whether the true value of this special place is best realized by exploiting it for kilowatts, or conserving it for its biodiversity and the nourishment it provides communities up and down its shores.

It’s not an easy question to answer — here or anywhere. The proposed dam in Kuta is just one example of a growing enthusiasm, particularly in lower-income countries, for hydroelectric power and its promise of cheap, clean, and copious energy. Around the Balkans alone, roughly 2,700 new hydropower projects of varying sizes are currently in the works — more than all the active hydropower plants in the United States. And that is dwarfed by the number of planned dams in Asia, Africa, and South America.

This stands in stark contrast to the trend in more developed regions like the United States and Western Europe, where new science is driving efforts to dismantle existing dams. Aging reservoirs have become inefficient, local ecosystem and habitat impacts can be profound, and accumulating research suggests that hydropower reservoirs may be a much larger contributor of methane — a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide — than previously realized. In a recent study published in the journal BioScience, researchers found that reservoirs may produce as much as a billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents — the majority of emissions coming in the form of methane — each year, more than the total emissions from the country of Canada.

“When you build a dam, you destroy the single most important thing about a river: the flow,” says Rok Rozman, a Slovenian biologist and kayaker who has become a fierce defender of the Vjosa. “You kill the whole ecosystem.”

As the first mega-dam, the Hoover Dam, completed in 1935, marked a turning point in the efficiency and ambition of hydropower projects. Dean Pulsipher, then a teenage laborer, remembers his first view of the site of the future Hoover Dam. “There was just a cow trail going down” to the Colorado River, he told historian Dennis McBride. Pulsipher couldn’t fathom how a dam could be built there. “That canyon was full of water — there were no sandbars down there. I thought that’s an impossible task, that they’ll ever accomplish that,” he said.

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