Free Online Tool Lets You Assess Dam Projects Around the World
By Claire Salisbury
For example, high quantities of greenhouse gases are released from submerged soil and rotting vegetation, and from turbines and spillways, especially in the tropics, meaning that dam projects are often not the environmentally-friendly option they seem. But assessing the various impacts of dams, alongside their economic viability, is a complex task, and the decision-making process behind a dam is rarely transparent.
Now, a new tool has been developed with the aim of making this kind of assessment more open and available to all. The free HydroCalculator tool, developed by the NGO Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF), is accessible online and is easy to use. The tool's developers, CSF founder John Reid and CSF researcher Thaís Vilela, hope it will allow "a broad group of citizens, researchers and policymakers, to foresee and monitor the economic and environmental consequences of hydropower projects."
The HydroCalculator's end output offers a clear presentation of the net economic value of the dam under consideration, with and without the cost of greenhouse gas emissions factored in; the number of years required before the project generates a profit; and the number of years until net carbon emissions become negative.
Thousand Island Lake in China, the result of a dam built in the 1950s on the Xin'an River.Bryan Ong / Flickr
Reid was inspired to develop the HydroCalculator tool after carrying out numerous cost-benefit analyses of dams, and finding that many such projects "threatened ecosystems and didn't deliver much economic benefit," he said. "I wanted to make it easy for other people to do this sort of analysis.
"For too long, environmentalists had tacitly accepted that it was none of their business to weigh in on the economic merits of big construction projects. That's nonsense," he continued. "The tool is part of a bigger effort to make nature's advocates real players in large public investment decisions."
Vilela said the number of projects which aren't financially feasible "is surprising," and that "transparency in the decision-making process is our main goal."
To use the tool, accessed via CSF's website, the user inputs key project data, including the size of the area to be flooded, the vegetation types that will be submerged, projected costs, dam generating capacity and the price at which the electricity will be sold.
Default values for several factors, such as vegetation carbon content, the wholesale price of energy, and the energy discount rate, are available online if specific details are unknown. All of the dam project analyses that have previously been carried out can also be consulted on the website.
A graphic depiction of major factors influencing greenhouse gas emissions from hydroelectric dams.Vilela and Reid (2017) under a CC BY 4.0 license
Reid and Vilela validated the tool against in-depth, peer-reviewed studies of Amazonian dam impacts, and found that their simplified methodology produced comparable results. Although the precise results varied, the relative costs and benefits of different existing Amazon dams, and their economic feasibility, was similar. The inclusion of the cost of greenhouse gas emissions had both positive and negative effects on the economic feasibility of different dams, they found, but did not change the overall feasibility for any of them.
Recent scientific studies have shown how important hydropower dams are as a source of methane, something largely overlooked in dam impact assessments. Methane is far more potent than CO2, but it also degrades more quickly: over 100 years, methane has an effect more than 30 times stronger than CO2, but this increases to 86 times stronger when considered over a period of 20 years. This shorter timeframe is what really counts, scientists say, given the urgency with which CO2 emissions need to be curbed to prevent catastrophic global warming.
As a result, the incorporation of accurate greenhouse gas emissions estimates was key to the creation of the HyroCalculator. That "required installing a global map of carbon density, figuring out the emissions from each country's electricity mix, and finding a formula for reservoir-based emissions that can work for any project," said Reid. "The difficulty with emissions points to the central challenge with any web-based analytical tool: precision versus practicality."
The Tucuruí dam spillway on Brazil's Tocantins River. International Rivers / Flickr
In the name of practicality and ease of use, the Hydrocalculator does make some minor concessions to accuracy. Emissions from turbines and spillways, for example, were excluded from this version of the tool, because there's greater uncertainty around these sources, said Vilela. As a result, the calculator's emission estimates will be conservative, for now, but CSF is planning to add these additional sources into future versions.
The HydroCalculator has been well tested. It has been used by CSF for some time, and other organizations, including a development bank and International Rivers, an environmental NGO, have also employed the tool in their research.
Sarah Bardeen, of International Rivers, said their staff has "found the HydroCalculator to be useful in assessing a [dam's] economic viability when we have limited information about a project."
"The HydroCalculator shows that hydropower is far from carbon-neutral, and helps users calculate a ballpark estimate of greenhouse gas emissions from a dam's reservoir," Bardeen added. "This is important, because it puts information about reservoir emissions into the hands of affected communities, who are often shut out of the opaque planning processes around hydropower projects."
The Santo Antônio dam on the Madeira River in Brazil, part of the Madeira Hydroelectric Complex.Brazil's Growth Acceleration Program / Flickr
Both Bardeen and the CSF team emphasize that the tool should not be used in isolation, but as part of a broader assessment process. "Hydropower is a notoriously complex and risky power source to build, and there really isn't a tool that can capture and show all the environmental, social and economic consequences of building a dam," Bardeen explained.
Assessing the tradeoffs of hydropower development should be done through "deep analysis of primary data and listening to the people who would be affected," agreed Reid. "The HydroCalculator just lets you take a first step along that path."
Major environmental risks of dams—such as the direct and indirect impacts to biodiversity, effects on aquatic and terrestrial wildlife connectivity, and reduction in a waterway's nutrient and sediment flow—along with the consequences to local communities, must all be carefully weighed against the benefits of a proposed dam. Though, at present, none of these risks are tallied by the Hydrocalculator. Still, the tool goes a long way toward empowering dam project-impacted communities, the experts said.
Belo Monte dam under construction in 2015.Pascalg622 under a CC BY 3.0 license
In the Amazon, where mega-dam projects are slated for many of the basin's rivers, scientists fear that harm from dams will be irreversible. There, Indigenous people and traditional river communities are fighting to protect their sacred lands and livelihoods. And untold numbers of species still not described by science are at risk.
"Communities protecting their lands and waters need all the help they can get to evaluate the impacts of proposed hydropower projects. In the Amazonian context, this tool is another arrow in their quiver," Bardeen said. "But bad hydropower projects go forward for many reasons—and in Brazil, corruption, graft and authoritarianism have the tendency to steamroll reason and science."
The global debate around hydropower "is likely to intensify as pressure grows to meet expanding electricity demand and rein in greenhouse gas emissions," Reid and Vilela concluded in their paper. Tools such as the HydroCalculator can help provide the knowledge needed to navigate that debate.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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