The Environmental Paradox of Large-Scale Hydroelectric Developments

Hydroelectric power poses a major paradox for environmentalism, as noted in a previous GeoCurrents post. On the one hand, most environmentalists detest dams, which drastically transform riverine ecology, prevent anadromous fish migration, inundate productive and diverse terrestrial ecosystems, displace sizable numbers of people, and occasionally threaten entire indigenous cultures.  Yet on the other hand, hydropower is remarkably clean, produces no greenhouse gasses (beyond temporary releases from decaying vegetation), and is renewable over long periods of time (depending on the rate of sedimentation). In the poorer parts of the world, moreover, the relatively cheap power that can be produced by large, fast-flowing rivers can diminish deforestation by reducing the need for charcoal and firewood for cooking.

Given these trade-offs, one might expect environmentalists to maintain an ambivalent attitude toward hydroelectric development. And given the fact that the green community regards global climate change as an existential threat to the planet, overshadowing all other concerns, one might perhaps imagine grudging support for such projects as the D. R. Congo’s Grand Inga Dam, which could electrify all of sub-Saharan Africa. But such expectations would not be met; environmental stalwarts not only oppose dam construction, but often seek to dismantle existing hydro structures.

The case against large dams is indeed compelling, and has been argued in eloquent and sometimes persuasive terms by a number of writers, including Jacques Leslie in Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, and Patrick McCully in Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams: Enlarged and Updated Edition. These authors find little to like in dam development. As one of the blurbs for Leslie’s book puts is, “dams cause aridity, erosion, extinction, and pollution,” in addition to displacing millions and threatening indigenous communities. Given the thorough documentation of such damages, it is hardly surprising that most greens give blanket opposition to large hydroelectric projects.

Environmental arguments against proposed dams are couched in both general and specific terms. Consider, for example, the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter’s brief against the Lower Churchill project in Labrador, Canada, which would flood 85 square kilometers of land and generate a substantial 3,074 megawatts of electricity. The report frames the issue unambiguously, contending that “the project is being touted as a green power project. It is not!” Hydropower in general, the author notes, “destroys carbon sinks, generates methane and is not a solution to climate change.” The only hydroelectric proposals that should be supported, the article argues, are those that entail no diversions, no inter-basin transfers of water, no flow modifications, no reservoirs, and no interference with fish runs. Needless to say, the Lower Churchill project does not meet these restrictive standards. The power to be produced by the dam, the Sierra Club further contends, is not necessary, as “aggressive demand-side management, or reducing the need for power, by increasing efficiency in domestic and industrial sectors has not been meaningfully explored.” Also inadequately examined is an alternative “proposal by the Metis Nation to produce 1000 megawatts of wind energy in Labrador.”

A similar statement against the D. R. Congo’s proposed Grand Inga Project has been put forward by International Rivers, a global environmental NGO. Besides the usual objections, it highlights a number of specific concerns. Pervasive political corruption in the D. R. Congo and neighboring countries, it contends, could shunt most economic gains to the tiny elite population while saddling national governments with unsustainable debt loads. The envisaged electricity-led industrial expansion, moreover, would only lure firms from other developing countries, thus undermining their economies, yet would provide nothing but “financial opportunities for Africa’s elite business and government leaders, offering few ‘trickle–down’ benefits.” Most Africans would not gain, the report claims, because they are not connected to the electrical grid. Grid expansion, moreover, would not only be too costly, but would lodge too much political power in the hands of corrupt, centralized regimes. According to International Rivers, the Inga project would also “divert potential investment from renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal.” And to top it off, the document claims, Inga’s dams, power plants, and transmission lines would likely become “targets for sabotage by rebel groups.”

Although the local ecological and human-rights damages caused by massive dams are undeniable, the case against hydropower made by such organizations as the Sierra Club and International Rivers is more of a stretch. Greenhouse gases are indeed released by vegetation decaying on the reservoir bottoms, but the temporary discharges release vastly less carbon than the standard “alternative”: fossil fuel combustion. By the same token, the “carbon sink” function of inundated floodplain vegetation is minimal in the context of the global carbon cycle. The argument that energy conservation coupled with solar, wind, and geothermal power would suffice, obviating the need for hydro, is simply unrealistic. In most parts of the world, geothermal and wind resources are inadequate or non-existent, and solar power remains too expensive for wholesale substitution. And even if such alternatives could be deployed to satisfy the power needs slated to be met by the Lower Churchill, surely the dam’s 3,000+ megawatts could be used to off-set the power currently generated by fossil-fuel combustion—a highly desirable outcome from a global perspective keyed to climate change.

The case against the Grand Inga project advanced by International Rivers also fails from a political-economic perspective. Certainly the D. R. Congo and many of its neighbors suffer from both political corruption and insurgencies, but such problems challenge any development initiatives, not merely those centered on hydropower. Several of the proposed beneficiary countries, moreover, including Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, have relatively effective governments. The broader issue is whether withholding infrastructural improvement on the grounds of corruption and instability could possibly prove beneficial. Would an investment embargo on the D. R. Congo spur reform and improve governance, or would it merely risk consigning the country to perpetual poverty? International Rivers’ claim that most Africans would not benefit because they live in dispersed villages unconnected to the grid, is severely overstated. Sub-Saharan Africa may have a low urbanization rate, but its cities and towns are growing rapidly, and most have a great thirst for power. Finally, the fear that hydro-led industrialization in Africa, unlikely though it may be, would merely rob other parts of the world of their industries reflects a naïve, zero-sum view of the global economy. And if Grand Inga would not benefit “all Africans,” its advantages could still be significant.

China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower facility by a huge margin, is a good place to ponder the paradoxes of hydropower. Its damage is undeniable, ranging from the displacement of over a million people to the inundation of one of the world most scenic gorges to the endangerment of several species of wildlife, including the famed Chinese river dolphin. But the relatively clean power produced by the project has been an atmospheric boon. As reported by the Wikipedia article, “at full power, Three Gorges reduces coal consumption by 31 million tonnes per year, avoiding 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions millions of tonnes of dust, one million tonnes of sulfur dioxide, 370,000 tonnes of nitric oxide, 10,000 tonnes of carbon monoxide, and a significant amount of mercury.” One could argue, of course, that China could have realized the same gains through solar and wind development, but such contentions are a stretch. China has been pushing both solar and wind power to a remarkable extent, but its efforts have not been adequate to sate the country’s growing thirst for power. And whatever pathologies of the raging Chinese economy that one might wish to highlight, it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of grim poverty over the past several decades.

The common green faith in solar power as a panacea also fails to withstand scrutiny. For more than a generation, environmentalists have argued that a solar revolution would be imminent but for the machinations of the fossil-fuel industry. When I was an environmental studies major at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, I was taught that photovoltaic cells needed only support from the U.S. government to become economically competitive with coal-produced power within a few years. More than three decades down the road, and the same arguments appear. Yet in an irony of ironies, when large, cost-effective solar-power projects are proposed, environmental opposition quickly sprouts, seeking to preserve habitat in the vulnerable desert environments typically selected for large arrays. Instead, green partisans favor small-scale solar projects, typically those based on rooftop photovoltaics, ideally disconnected from national power grids to encourage decentralization. Generally unmentioned, however, are the steep environmental burdens imposed by decentralized solar systems, which demand highly toxic and relatively short-lived batteries for power storage—otherwise electricity only flows when the sun shines. Even large-scale solar projects cannot form a complete electricity solution, as power must still be generated at night. Non-battery based energy storage is possible, but trade-offs are again encountered. One of the best techniques in mountainous areas is “pumped storage,” which entails elevating water from a lower lake to a higher lake during the day with solar power, and then letting it run through turbines back to the low-lying reservoir at night. But pumped storage, of course, entails dam construction.

Large-scale solar is not the only low-carbon energy alternative to face environmental opposition. In fact, all of them do. Natural-gas combustion produces much less carbon dioxide than coal burning, and the burgeoning supplies of gas in the United States are already reducing coal use, sending the Appalachian coal country in the U.S. into an economic tailspin. But gas is now cheap and abundant due to fracking, an often filthy process that garners pronounced environmental hostility. Nuclear power yields no greenhouse gases at all, yet it has long been regarded as an anathema, and for good reasons. Yet when Japan shuttered its nuclear industry in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster—much to the celebration of greens worldwide—its carbon footprint mushroomed. And although several notable environmental writers have come to advocate nuclear energy, including George Monbiot and Stewart Brand, they are often regarded as traitors. Even something as seemingly benign as wind-power often faces green opposition and lawsuits over bird mortality, the extension of unsightly transmission lines, and the “visual pollution” inherent in the turbines themselves. Urban intensification as well, which cuts both power consumption and habitat loss, faces the strident opposition of NIMBY (“not in my backyard) advocates who cloak themselves in a green mantle, as dissected in a previous GeoCurrents post.

Environmental opposition to such plans and projects is understandable, as they all come at a big cost to nature. But the huge atmospheric trade offs must also be acknowledged. In the real world, the power now produced by the Three Gorges Dam would not have been replaced, had the dam been cancelled, by solar arrays or wind farms; instead, it would have been largely made up by the combustion of dirty coal. But environmentalism seems to be congenitally blind to the paradox, largely because its ideological standard-bearers are not inclined to accept the inevitability of compromised positions. They tend to view the world in Manichean terms, dividing cleanly the greedy proponents of destructive exploitation from the selfless strivers for eco-salvation. Wherever environmental damages loom, green organizations can be expected to step in and say “no,” dedicated as they are to stopping any threats to nature. The natural world has been damaged enough already, they argue, and it is now time to stop the machine.

One of the overriding yet under-acknowledged issues in this conundrum is that of scale. At the local or regional level, a project such as the Three Gorges Dam is extraordinarily destructive; at the global scale, it generates profound benefits. The environmental movement, however, tends to elide such slippages in cost-benefit ratios as one changes the frame of reference. Confusion over this scalar dynamic is perfectly encapsulated in one of the major catchphrases of the 1970s: “Think Globally: Act Locally. Under the spell of this slogan, neighborhood activists can feel virtuous in battling against new high-density residential projects that would increase congestion and detract from the local quality of life, ignoring the larger consequences of shunting new developments toward the energy-sucking suburban fringe. A more realistic slogan might be “sacrifice locally when necessary to save globally,” but such a position is unlikely to gain traction in a romantic movement focused on co-salvation.

All of this analysis presupposes the view that climate change poses an extraordinary threat to the Earth and human civilization, trumping other environmental considerations. But from the perspective of climate-change skeptics, both those who deny its realty and those who downplay its consequences, different trade-offs come into play. If global warming is a manageable matter that brings benefits as well as detriments, as the “skeptical environmentalist” Bjørn Lomborg suggests, then one can easily oppose all major hydroelectric facilities on environmental grounds, trusting that economic growth and technological progress will solve the energy dilemma before the climatic point-of-no-return is reached. But the contemporary environmental movement is predicated on the notion that climate change is an existential threat; most greens regard Lomborg and his followers as naïve optimists blind to the severity of the atmospheric crisis. From this perspective, automatic opposition to such projects as the Lower Churchill or the Grand Inga can only be regarded as highly paradoxical.

Yet this is not to argue that consistency requires those who shudder at the prospect of global warming to accept all large hydropower projects. If the local and regional damage imposed by any particular dam project is severe enough, opposition is warranted. But at some point, intellectually integrity does become compromised; if one rallies against hydropower, nuclear power, natural gas extraction, large-scale solar facilities, wind-farms, and urban intensification, one can hardly pretend to be combating climate change—even if one does drive a Prius. Admittedly, few environmentalists oppose wind power and eco-friendly urban growth in the abstract, but whenever particular developments are mooted, green opponents—and environmental litigators—move in, struggling to protect the interests of any constituency troubled by impingements on its own neighborhood. Although the movement vigilantly watches for “greenwashing” by corporations and governmental agencies, it remains blind to similarly false coloring on the part of community organizations and local activists. Unless the environmental movement as a whole can adopt a more reflexive, self-critical attitude that acknowledges trade-offs and realizes that local sacrifices must sometime be made for the greater good, its ability act as a positive force will remain strictly limited.