Small hydropower plants do more harm than good
Hydropower is renewable, but generally not environmentally friendly. A study by IGB shows for Romania how the expansion of hydropower runs counter to the objectives of EU environmental policy. Hydroelectricity is in conflict with the requirements of the Flora-Faune-Habitat Directive (Natura 2000) and the European Water Framework Directive (WFD): around half of the hydroelectric plants in Romania are located in areas of nature conservation. Most of these are small power plants that only contribute 3% to electricity production in Romania, but threaten biodiversity. Therefore, European energy policy urgently needs to be aligned with the objectives of the EU biodiversity strategy, the researchers warn. Otherwise, there is a risk of significant losses of freshwater biodiversity, and the objectives of the EU’s Green Deal would not be achievable.
Compared to other European countries, Romania still has many natural and near-natural fresh waters which are biodiversity hotspots. Yet at least 545 hydroelectric power stations (HPP) have been built to date, and the construction of others must be subsidized. In their overview of the geographical distribution, the researchers show that 49 percent of existing power plants are located in EU flora-fauna-habitat areas or other protected areas; 17 percent of HPPs were built in near-natural or natural river systems that were previously in “very good” or “good” ecological status under the EU Water Framework Directive and are therefore not expected to be harmed .
“It is true that a European directive essentially specifies the requirements that must be met by hydropower plants located in flora-fauna-habitat areas of the EU. Unfortunately, these requirements are not enforced, as small hydropower plants become unprofitable if, for example, they are equipped with functional fishways in order to meet environmental requirements. Unfortunately, the legally binding nature of the environmental requirements of hydropower plants is also controversial, both for new and existing hydropower plants, ”said Martin Pusch, co-author of the IGB study, explaining the basic problem. .
Fish like brown trout and European bullhead are severely affected
The hydropower plants studied significantly affect fish populations both upstream and downstream of the dam, for example by diverting water from the main course, as an obstacle to migration, and by regulating rivers. The research team compared the current abundances of EU-protected brown trout and European bullhead at 32 monitoring sites in Carpathian streams to baseline data collected before the construction of the HPP. “62 percent of the upstream and downstream sections of streams lost one or both species of fish compared to the baseline period. 38 percent of the upstream sections and 19 percent of the downstream sections now lack one species of fish, and 24 percent of the upstream sections and 43 percent of the downstream sections lack the two fish species that are there. were expected. This is a terribly negative result ”, underlined Gabriela Costea, first author of the study and former researcher of the IGB.
In particular, the mass of small hydropower plants is problematic
The hydropower boom in Romania is mainly due to the implementation of the European Directive on Renewable Energy, which has been accompanied by subsidies for the construction and operation of hydropower plants. As a result, many small hydropower plants with a capacity of up to 10 MW have been built, which hardly contributes to power generation – only 3% of total power generation comes from these more than 500 small power plants. Environmental standards were often not sufficiently taken into account during construction: “Environmental impact studies are carried out for very large hydroelectric projects in Romania, but very rarely for smaller ones. And in the rare cases where these reviews are carried out, their quality falls far short of the standards of the relevant European directive, ”explained Martin Pusch.
Currently, many more HPPs are in the planning or construction stage. Particularly controversial is the construction of the Dumitra hydroelectric power station in the Jiu River Gorge National Park on one of the last unblocked rivers in the Southern Carpathians. The building permit for this HPP was canceled by the Bucharest Court of Appeal as it is expected to have a negative impact on the protected habitats and animal species in this Flora-Fauna-Habitat area of the EU. However, the national environmental protection agency does not want to recognize this legally binding decision and wants to conduct a new environmental assessment in order to obtain a building permit after all.
“However, the problem does not only concern Romania or South East Europe, but requires fundamental clarification. The EU should urgently make its own environmental and energy policies coherent in order to resolve serious conflicting objectives. Otherwise, the objectives of the European Green Deal will hardly be achieved with the current regulations. Fortunately, there is the possibility of switching to renewable energy supply AND preserving or renaturalizing most of Europe’s streams and small rivers – because their low hydropower is negligible for the success of the energy transition ”, summarized Martin. Pusch.