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Hydro-electric dams: cheap, efficient, clean energy?

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  • Hydro-electric dams: cheap, efficient, clean energy?

    I made this thread to raise some issues that are rarely noticed by people unless they have a background or interest in environmental sciences, or actually depend on the natural ecosystems affected by the construction of hydro-electric dams. I'll be posting articles, starting with this one:

    Originally posted by pacificenvironment.org
    Hydroelectric Dams: A Looming Threat to Russia’s Mighty Rivers



    The wilds of Siberia and the Far East—where tigers roam dense forests and indigenous communities tend reindeer herds in lush valleys—are faced with a dire threat: massive hydroelectric dams.

    The Russian economy has developed rapidly since the early 1990s, and today the demand for energy exceeds the country’s electricity production and supply capabilities. The government projects that expanding electricity production capacity to attract and support industrial and resource extraction projects in Siberia and the Far East will bring much-needed social and economic development to the territory east of the Urals. The rising cost and demand for petroleum-based fuel sources and the added pressure of global climate change are also pushing Russia to develop non-carbon energy alternatives so it can export and capitalize on the maximum volume of its fossil fuel stores. Russia’s primary hydroelectric company, RusHydro proposes to dam the country’s mighty rivers as a fix-all solution to energy and development needs.

    RusHydro touts its behemoth dams as sources of clean energy and engines of regional development. However, history and experience show that large dams are exceedingly destructive to entire river basins and surrounding communities. The proven negative environmental and social impacts of large dams greatly outweigh any possible benefits to the affected regions.

    The dams planned for the Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Sakha, and Amur regions, should they be built, have the potential to produce thousands of megawatts of cheap electricity, but the local populations are unlikely to benefit, as the projected output is already almost entirely earmarked for export or energy-intensive industrial use (such as notoriously dirty aluminum plants). Thus, the domestic consumer is left without even a modest economic gain to show for the great social and environmental injustice she stands to suffer due to flooding and diminished resources.

    The planned Evenkiiskaya dam project in the Arctic region of Russia’s Krasnoyarsk Territory (with a projected production capacity of a whopping 8-12 GW and a 9000 kmē reservoir, it would be among the largest dams in the world), is fraught with devastating social concerns and alarming environmental repercussions. These include displacement of thousands of indigenous Evenks and possible contamination of the Yenisei watershed with nuclear wastes from an underground chamber. Meanwhile, the district has no industry to use this massive quantity of energy, and neither is there a large consumer base here in need of additional electricity. The project documentation indicates that this electricity is scheduled for export to China and Mongolia. Similarly, the Amur Region governor hopes to sell virtually all of the electricity from the planned Nizhnezeiskaya Dam to China.

    It is easy to see that large hydro will solve neither the region’s energy needs nor its economic problems. The local communities RusHydro claims to benefit face displacement and a degraded natural environment, while massive quantities of cheap electricity will charge along aged, inefficient power grids to feed energy needs in other regions and countries. The World Bank’s December 2008 report Energy Efficiency in Russia: Untapped Reserves determined that 45% of the energy produced and distributed in Russia is lost to inefficient equipment and practices. According to the report, investment into measures to reduce energy consumption in residential, industrial, and transportation sectors and increase the efficiency of its energy delivery systems could save Russia an estimated $80 billion annually while dramatically reducing its global climate impact.

    Large Hydro – At What Price?

    Large hydroelectric dams wreak havoc on the ecosystems and communities where they are placed. The environmental damage can be so extensive and the direct and indirect costs to people and governments so high, that even the most grandiose of dam projects is difficult to justify. Upstream or down, the ecology and hydrology of a river are forever changed once a concrete wall chokes back its waters. The following are a few of the changes large dams bring to river basins, emphasizing physical and chemical alterations that are of particular concern in the Russian context:

    Standing in Nature’s Way: Unnatural Lakes above the Dam

    Perhaps the most apparent of any of a large dam’s impacts are the immense reservoirs that form once its gates are shut. Naturally, the higher a dam is, the more extensive the consequent flooding and environmental damage. The Boguchanskaya Dam on the Angara River has been under halting construction since 1980 and is scheduled for completion sometime in 2010-2012. The plans initially called for a reservoir depth of 185 meters, but at the behest of developer RusHydro and co-investor RUSAL this figure was increased to 208 meters, despite vocal protests from surrounding communities. According to an analysis from the Siberian Russian Academy of Sciences, this 23-meter difference will more than double the flooded area, including valuable agricultural and forest lands. The higher figure would also mean several more villages displaced.

    Of course, reservoir formation is devastating for human and animal communities alike: Central Siberia’s Evenkiiskaya Dam threatens approximately 7,000 indigenous Evenks with cultural extinction, as the reservoir would displace them to unfamiliar regions and their traditional reindeer herding grounds would be lost to the flood. A colony of Old Believers in Tatarka, north of Krasnoyarsk, also stands to see its way of life destroyed by the planned Motyginskaya Dam. Also, the wetland areas downstream from Motyginskaya, home to unique endangered bird populations, will be severely diminished. The people displaced by the Siberian Boguchanskaya Dam are scheduled to receive apartments in neighboring villages as “compensation” for loss of their homes; inspectors, however, have already condemned these as sub-standard – improper construction has caused the buildings to crack and suffer water damage before a single person has moved in!

    Worryingly, areas with high seismicity like the mountainous Sakha Republic stand to see the risk of earthquakes increased, should large dams like the planned Timpton cascade wrest back the powerful flows of its rivers. Though further research is still required on the subject, existing evidence indicates that heavy volumes of water place immense pressure on the reservoir floor. This can quickly widen natural cracks and fissures in the rock bed, potentially triggering earthquakes and tremors.

    The Evenkiiskaya Dam and Motyginskaya Dam also threaten to wipe out millions of hectares of lush, pristine taiga, robbing this part of Siberia of its rich biodiversity and the earth of a valuable carbon sink. In addition, the decaying plant matter on the newly-formed reservoir floor zaps oxygen from the lower strata of water and produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that evaporates from the reservoir’s surface. These oxygen-poor bottom waters become highly acidic, which breaks down minerals at the reservoir floor and raises toxic mineral concentrations in the water. Such an environment is inhospitable to fish that local communities often depend on, creating stagnant “dead lakes.”

    Slowed to a Trickle: A Torrent of Problems Downstream from Dams

    The placement of a large physical barrier on a river cuts off fish and mammal migration routes, both above and below the dam, often with irreversible consequences. The Volga river system in the European part of Russia once served as vital migration and spawning routes for about 90% of the world’s sturgeon as it traveled north from the Caspian Sea. Since the Volga-Kama cascade of dams blocked off these rivers in eleven places, several sturgeon species, including the prized beluga, have completely disappeared from the once-teeming rivers. The world’s already dwindling stocks of salmon and other migratory species (like sturgeon!) would face a similar fate if dams blocked the Amur River, obstructing critical spawning routes from the Sea of Okhotsk.

    The altered chemistry of reservoir water affects the ecology of a diminished river for many kilometers downstream, leading to greater climactic ramifications. When the Krasnoyarskaya Dam (one of the world’s most powerful at 6000 MW) was built on the Yenisei River, its designers predicted that warm water releases from the reservoir would prevent the river from freezing for about 20 kilometers downstream. However, the unfrozen stretch of water extends 200-300 kilometers from the dam, which in the depths of the Siberian winter, causes thick freezing fog to cloud the city of Krasnoyarsk. In the remote northern areas near the Evenkiiskaya and Motyginskaya dam sites, such fog would hinder plane travel between isolated villages. In these sparsely populated regions of Russia’s far north, where road networks are underdeveloped at best, riparian communities would be robbed of vital connections to the outside world for long winter months.

    Additionally, the increased humidity and warm pockets of air caused by increased water temperature can lead to an overall increase in the surrounding microclimate’s air temperature. More research must be done to fully understand how even a minor temperature increase downstream from the Evenkiiskaya and Nizhnekureiskaya Dams in the Yenisei river system would influence their surrounding Arctic permafrost climates.

    Development at all Cost?

    Russia’s own experience with the environmental and social impacts of dams throughout its western section should be enough to prove that large hydroelectric plants cause more long-lasting damage than they are worth. While it is certainly understandable and commendable that the country seeks to develop powerful non-carbon energy resources, it would be illogical and irresponsible to build even one of the planned projects; the costs to the Siberian and Far Eastern people, wildlife, and forests are too great. Instead, planners should apply their efforts to increasing Russia’s energy efficiency and developing more responsible energy resources like micro-hydroelectric dams, wind, solar, and geothermal power.

    Currently on the Drawing Board:

    Amur Region – Nizhnebureiskaya Dam, Nizhnezeiskaya Dam
    Sakha Republic – Yuzhno-Yakutskaya (Timpton) Cascade, Kankunskaya Dam
    Irkutsk Region – Mokskaya Dam, Ivanovskaya Dam
    Krasnoyarsk Region – Evenkiiskaya Dam, Nizhnekureiskaya Dam, Motyginskaya Dam, Boguchanskaya Dam (under construction)
    Altai Region – Katunskaya Dam (potentially cancelled)

    source: http://www.pacificenvironment.org/section.php?id=146
    In the above article, it talked about oxygen depletion in the newly formed reservoirs created by these dams, due to the decaying plant matter submerged under water and also raises the acidity of the water. This makes for another process called mercury methylation, with serious ramifications on our health, since we are at the top of the food chain, eating fish caught from rivers and oceans...
    Originally posted by Environment Canada

    Mercury Methylation


    In the environment, mercury is transformed into methylmercury when the oxidized, or mercuric species (Hg2+), gains a methyl group (CH3). The methylation of Hg2+ is primarily a natural, biological process resulting in the production of highly toxic and bioaccumulative methylmercury compounds (MeHg+) that build up in living tissue and increase in concentration up the food chain, from microorganisms like plankton, to small fish, then to fish eating species like otters and loons, and humans.

    Understanding the variables influencing the formation of methylmercury is critically important due to its highly toxic, bioaccumulative and persistent nature. A variety of microorganisms, particularly methanogenic (methane producing) and sulfate-dependant bacteria are thought to be involved in the conversion of Hg2+ to MeHg under anaerobic (oxygen poor) conditions found, for example, in wetlands and river sediments, as well as in certain soils. Methylation occurs primarily in aquatic, low pH (acidic) environments with high concentrations of organic matter.

    Rates of biomethylation are a function of environmental variables affecting mercuric ion availability as well as the population sizes of methylating microbes. Alkalinity, or pH, plays a strong role in regulating the process because it is affected by, and in turn effects, the adsorption of various forms of mercury on soil, clay and organic matter particles, thus influencing mercuric ion availability. Acid rain may increase biomethylation as more MeHg is formed under acidic conditions. Mercury can be bound by sulfide ions and made unavailable for methylation; however, sulfate may stimulate growth of certain methylating microbes. Organic matter can stimulate microbial populations, reduce oxygen levels, and therefore increase biomethylation. Biomethylation increases in warmer temperatures when biological productivity is high, and decreases during the winter.

    Land use changes affecting some of these variables can result in increased rates of mercury methylation. For example, the construction of hydro-electric dams can mobilize mercury stored in the submerged forest floor and vegetation. The presence of organic matter (in the form of newly submerged vegetation) in combination with anaerobic conditions can stimulate microbial growth and lead to elevated methylmercury levels.

    In general, the form of mercury in the environment varies with the season, with changes in organic matter, nutrient and oxygen levels and hydrological interactions within an ecosystem. In addition, the quantity and forms of mercury are, to a large extent, a function of emission sources and transportation processes. All of these variables in turn affect the global mercury budget.

    source: http://www.pacificenvironment.org/section.php?id=146
    In general, higher acidity in water systems is catastrophic for biodiversity. Fish cannot successfully reproduce if the PH is below 5, and the water is quickly taken over by gloomy green, gelatinous algae. Shellfish struggle to generate shells under this same acidity, lowering their reproduction rates and size as they divert more energy during their life-cycles to producing shells that can protect them.
    Last edited by jgk3; 06-10-2010, 01:36 PM.
    I was taught how to think.

  • #2
    Re: Hydro-electric dams: cheap, efficient, clean energy?

    To get a better understanding how these dams are used to generate electricity, here a link to an illustrated explanation:

    http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/hyhowworks.html
    "Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it." ~Malcolm X

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    • #3
      Re: Hydro-electric dams: cheap, efficient, clean energy?

      Thanks Kanada.
      I was taught how to think.

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Hydro-electric dams: cheap, efficient, clean energy?

        Much of the negative effects of dams can be neutralized if the builder wants it to be. Here in Michigan we have dams but we also have fish latters which allow the migrating fish to reach their spawning grounds. A reservoir in my neighborhood has basicly a drainplug in the bottom which allows cold water from the lakes depts to enter a stream which can now host trout because of the cool water. Sure it is not natural but what is anymore? It is not natural to have bass in all the lakes but there they are, planted by the dnr along with a whole mess of other "unnatural" things all over the country. Dams along with the reservoirs they create can actualy be of great benefit to everyone involved- the key is in how they are built and managed.
        Hayastan or Bust.

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        • #5
          Re: Hydro-electric dams: cheap, efficient, clean energy?

          I still think we can do better than using dams, energy efficiency programs can reduce our consumption which also means more cash in our pockets and less waste, solar/wind/geothermal/tidal energy are renewable, clean and non-hazardous to the environment.

          I agree with your point that some of the negative effects of dams could be lessened with fish ladders and tunnels for water flow, but I don't think these measures do much to check the hazards of mercury contamination, water acidity and loss of aquatic biodiversity.
          Last edited by jgk3; 06-10-2010, 11:16 PM.
          I was taught how to think.

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: Hydro-electric dams: cheap, efficient, clean energy?

            Originally posted by jgk3 View Post
            I still think we can do better than using dams, energy efficiency programs can reduce our consumption which also means more cash in our pockets and less waste, solar/wind/geothermal/tidal energy are renewable, clean and non-hazardous to the environment.

            I agree with your point that some of the negative effects of dams could be lessened with fish ladders and tunnels for water flow, but I don't think these measures do much to check the hazards of mercury contamination, water acidity and loss of aquatic biodiversity.
            I have experience with the mercury contamination you mentioned. Mercury is the byproduct of burning coal which is one of the main sources of energy for pretty much most of the world. The mercury is released as the coal burns into the atmosphere and is then washed into the watersheds by rain. It gets into the lakes and rivers and is ingested by aquatic insects and small fish along with their food. This lower part of the food chain has the lowest amount of contamination in it and this level rises as you get higher in the food chain because the bigger animals eat a bunch of the little ones and ingest the mercury from each. A bluegill which feeds on mostly buggs is gona have lower mercury content then a bass which feeds on bluegills. Some of the highest mercury contents are found in swordfish, sharks, polar bears and other top end preditors. It is a good idea to have your blood mercury levels cheked and if they are hi you can get your blood cleansed and remove all heavy metals. Mercury is a inflamitory irritant and will cause all kinds of havoc in the body. In low levels it will have effects which are difficult to notice but very real, such effects include lazy or deformed seaman which causes steralization in males or it can effect the embryo causing birth defects and in higher doses it will turn you into Ivan the Terrible by causing pain and headaches that do not go away which leads to hostile demeaner and even madness. It pisses me off when i hear polititions praising the use of coal like Obama did because it is destroying our waters by turning them into poisen.
            Saving energy is always a good idea but you need to generate it first.
            Hayastan or Bust.

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            • #7
              Re: Hydro-electric dams: cheap, efficient, clean energy?

              I've never been big on hydro-electric dams, I think solar and wind are the way to go. They probably won't be ideal for every location, but the more electricity that people can obtain through these means the better it is for the environment, but more importantly it'll force the companies that still provide electricity through conventional means to lower their rates.


              Giant wind farms like the ones suggested central and northern plains in Texas, wouldn't really hinder the local ecosystem as there's not many larger flora or fauna there.

              Large Solar farms would be ideal for States like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Utah.

              Developments in Geothermal Energy are also expanding the area in which it can be used
              Last edited by ara87; 06-11-2010, 12:42 AM.
              Due to budget cuts the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.

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