Hydropower in Europe: A Dead End

  • None of the generalized benefits apply to the proposed 8507 additional hydropower projects in Europe. Most of them are small scale and come with significant negative externalities
  • The contribution of additional hydropower towards the EU’s energy transition is dwarfed by the potential for wind and solar power
  • Given the societal backlash, ecological damage and insignificant contribution to ‘semi-renewable’ energy production, there is little rationale to further develop hydropower

While hydropower dams alter rivers’ flow and their surrounding environment, significantly contributing to land subsidence and jeopardising freshwater and estuarine biodiversity, they do provide secure and reliable energy and have significantly contributed to the energy-water-food-nexus in many places.

None of the generalised benefits, however, apply to the proposed 8507 additional hydropower projects in Europe. Most of them are small scale and will create more harm to the environment than benefits to society. Especially the 2638 planned hydropower projects in the Balkan States would clog up a unique and pristine river system whose preservation one would believe to be morally imperative.

They are a European treasure we cannot afford to lose”- Gabriel Schwaderer, 2019 – Euronatur.

As one turns to the map of proposed dams it is quickly evident that protected areas of all sorts were deliberately disregarded in the planning process (Figure 1 & 2). For more maps, information and data please refer to balkanrivers.net. Unsurprisingly, estimates as to the effects on biodiversity are alarming with at least 20 and perhaps up to 30 freshwater fish species potentially going extinct and 95% being placed on the IUCN’s red list, if all of these plans would be carried out. For 68 of 69 endemic species, habitat losses are estimated between 30 and 100%, resulting in increased levels of endangerment for essentially the entire endemic fauna.

Dams Protected Areas Balkan
Figure 1 Map depicting all existing, planned and under-construction hydropower plants that are located inside protected areas. Bubble size represents capacity. Source balkanrivers.net
All dams Balkan
Figure 2 Map depicting all existing, planned and under-construction hydropower plants. Bubble size represents capacity. Source balkanrivers.net

Despite these alarming projections and the question to what extent such hydropower development violates the European Water Framework directive or the respective locations protection status, there is only a reluctant shift away from hydropower towards a pursuit of other forms of renewable energy. This is despite clear and strong findings that illustrate that dedicating a mere 1% of land mass, to eg solar power production would cater for the EU’s electricity consumption. And while the construction of many plants will likely go ahead, further questions remain in regards to the viability of hydropower under a changing climate with greater variability in flow regimes as well as the significance of the technology to balancing the grid in a climate neutral scenario where volatile solar and wind provide the majority of energy supply and/or where the grid has more connections to eg Turkey or North Africa.

Proponents of European hydropower development may continue pointing out the ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ contribution to e.g. the EU’S Green deal, but by doing so they ignore the ecological damage mentioned above, methane production in the reservoirs and the downstream impact of interrupted sediment transport. Most importantly, they drastically blow the actual contribution and potential of the technology out of proportion. In fact, the potential capacity and role of hydropower in Europe’s future renewable energy landscape is disappointingly modest. The WWF’s recently published inventory of hydropower plants and subsequently announced assessments are a timely and much needed addition to save the last blue veins of Europe and to illustrate the very much limited potential of additional hydropower on the continent, compared to other sources of renewable energy. A variety of studies and projections from renowned industry experts point in a similar direction, ascribing hydropower the role of a bystander compared to other renewables, with little additional potential– at best (Figure 3). LBST’s 2016 report clearly shows that not only does hydropower play an overall insignificant role in a future renewable energy landscape, but with much of the comparably small and finite potential already exploited also has very little additional potential for electricity production compared to other renewables.

LBST 2016
Figure 3 Technical potential of different renewables for electricity generation. From LBST (2016). 

While the potential contribution for hydropower in South-Eastern may be relatively larger, it is still dwarfed by the potential for wind energy and solar (Figure 4). More importantly, the benefits derived from the ecosystem services that these rivers provide and the eco-tourism they draw in, stand in no comparison to an insignificant increase in semi-sustainable energy. Within the Balkan countries, the construction of these plants is furthermore highly controversial and has been actively, and sometimes violently been opposed – as well as enforced with private security personnel reportedly having attacked protesters. As construction at times happens without permits and governments seem to further play into the hands of hydro-investors through biased subsidy schemes that disadvantage other forms of renewable energy, the opposition against hydropower and the dysfunctional political agenda has only grown stronger and lead to the formation and engagement of a variety of organizations that strongly oppose the construction of these hydropower plants under the umbrella of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, including balkanriverdefense, riverwatch, Euronatur, ecoalbania, Front 21/42, POLEKOL, or CZZS.

Balkan Potential Energey
Figure 4 Technical renewable energy potential for South East Europe. From IRENA (2017).


The European Union in particular is at a point where it should not jeopardize its last free flowing rivers but where it must rather be willing to stand up and take decisive and sustainable action and push for truly renewable energy production to conserve a healthy river system for its members as well as the Balkan candidate countries. For example, part of this assessment that the EU-Commission received in September 2019 is a clear guide as to where priorities in terms of energy security and renewable energy production should lie (Figure 5). All in all, considering the rich biodiversity, small capacity of the majority of suggested plants, their truly insignificant role in Europe’s transition to fully renewable energy production, the immense ecosystem services that these untapped rivers provide and the strong public opposition that many projects have faced across countries, there is little economic, societal nor ecologic rationale to invest in these plants, except to disproportionally benefit a few investors.

EU renewable Energy by country
Figure 5 EU renewable electricity generation potentials by Member State (average of ranges per member state) From Nuffel et al. (2019).

Christian holds degrees in Economics, Biology and Water Science from the University of Munich and the University of Oxford. He is a young water professional and currently serves as Managing Director at Oxenu - a consultancy for development and the environment.

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