Countries across the globe, including Canada, are setting ambitious net-zero emissions goals to tackle the global climate crisis. Hydropower generates around 60% of all renewable electricity globally, making it crucial to meet these targets.

In advance of Canadian WaterPower Week (Oct. 6-8, 2021), Anne-Raphaëlle Audouin, President & CEO, WaterPower Canada, spoke with Eddie Rich, CEO of the International Hydropower Association, to discuss the role of hydropower in achieving net-zero objectives and the transition to clean energy.

Watch the full interview here or read an edited and condensed version below.

Anne: I’m so pleased to welcome today Eddie Rich, CEO of the International Hydropower Association. Eddie, thank you for being with us today. Could you start by telling us about the International Hydropower Association?

Eddie: The International Hydropower Association is the voice of hydropower at the international table. We try to represent the progressive end of the sector to advance sustainable hydropower. We have a hundred corporate members from all around. We engage with other stakeholders in the hydropower community like social and environmental NGOs, governments, international financial institutions, media, etc.

Anne: What role do you see the industry playing as countries worldwide commit to ambitious climate objectives, including Canada, now on the de-carbonization path with a net-zero objective by 2050?

Eddie: There’s never been a greater global consensus around the need to tackle climate change and energy trends. That momentum is really important to capture, but we have a very small window of opportunity because our sector takes longer to build and has higher upfront capital costs than, say, the other renewables, so we are in danger of being forgotten.

If projects aren’t built now, particularly with these green stimulus packages, post-COVID that are coming from around the world, if we don’t take advantage of that to build and more than double investment in the sector, then the train will have left the station as far as 2050.

A lot more wind and solar will be built into the system, which is great, and we want to see a lot more of that, but the fact is that there is an ignored crisis within the crisis because there’s nothing to back it up. If we don’t choose hydropower to back it up, then everybody’s going to fall back on fossil fuels, or we are just going to have blackouts. Companies have a big role in getting that message out, presenting attractive projects, and advocating for policies enabling the sector.

Anne: The latest hydro growth and development data shows that the world is off-track to meet these net-zero goals. The International Renewable Energy Agency stated that the world’s existing hydropower capacity needs to grow by around 60% by 2050. What concrete steps do you think will need to happen to create this necessary change?

Eddie:  Some operations have much higher figures than IRENA; for example, the IEA (International Energy Association) would say to stay within 1.5 degrees, then we need to build in the next 30 years, the same amount of hydropower has been built in the last 120 years. We need another 1300 gigawatts.

So what concretely needs to happen? Well, we need to decide who is going to pay for flexibility and storage. The market will only reward electricity generation, that’s what it’s designed to do, but that doesn’t work so well for an industry like hydropower where so much of what it offers is flexibility, storage and balance.

The market will pile on more and more wind and solar, which is great, but they are called variable renewables for a reason. There is also the challenge of high capital costs, long lead-in times, and so on.

Many market mechanisms and policies can deal with this, but the simple fact is the government has to make an active decision to say, ‘Yeah, this is not going to be a market mechanism alone.’ We can’t just let the market run because we will face blackouts or go back to fossil fuels, no doubt.

Anne: How do international, national and regional market dynamics play a role in the transition to clean energy?

Eddie: You’ve got some fascinating stuff going on with interconnectivity within Canada and across North America, and that could be a big part of the solution. You sit on many water resources in Quebec, and they don’t in New England, so how can we work together?

I understand it is happening increasingly, but it’s taking a long time to get it together. The governments need to make sure that we enable interconnectivity and the other internal market mechanisms because these renewables work well together.

Anne: How can renewable energy sectors come together to help reinvent the grid for total renewable energy generation?

A: We almost instinctively think of the renewable energy sectors like a beauty contest, but, as humans, we know that we need all the renewables we can get. Now, the only thing is to understand how different renewables do different things and then fit them all together.

We should be enablers of wind and solar, compliment batteries, and show how we can work alongside all renewables. Then also be a supplier, of course, to green hydrogen, which takes us off into the whole world beyond electric.

Anne: With so many new processes and innovations in hydropower research and development, do you see international excitement for green hydrogen and what it can do?

Eddie: I was speaking to Andrew Forrest, who’s the founder of Fortescue Metals Group, and he was saying that the green hydrogen sector’s going to become the biggest sector in the world in the next few years, and it’s going to be powered very largely by hydropower. If that is the case, that’s great news for hydropower because there’s increased demand subject to all those market issues and the bankability of projects that we talked about earlier.

If we get this right, there’s an incentive and opportunity. Now, I don’t know whether it’s going to be the biggest sector in the world, but it’s going to be big. And it’s green hydrogen we should be looking at.

I can tell you; we are ready to play our role, whether it’s in Australia, North America, Europe, Asia and Africa; there’s something major on the cusp of happening in green hydrogen.

Anne: What do you think about cryptocurrency and Bitcoin mining data centers becoming huge energy consumers?

Eddie: What I like about this debate is that energy-intensive data mining is possible to locate. It’s quite flexible because you can put your data processing plant next to a big hydropower plant. It’s not the same for making steel or aluminum. You can’t fit a hydroelectric plant on the back of a plane. There are lots of things where you need the middle ground or something like green hydrogen cells.

These data processing centers for cryptocurrency could be located next to a hydropower plant meaning that you don’t need to transport the electricity very far, or you don’t need a middle agent like green hydrogen. I think there’s a lot more work to do and this is a very new field. I don’t quite know how it will play out, but the opportunity is there without a doubt.

Anne: Do you think we can reach net zero emissions by 2050 globally?

Eddie: Not on the path we’re on at the moment. No way. We have to get those policy changes, and we’ve got to move on these commitments. I’m optimistic because there’s been such a global consensus, and you do see these countries making strong commitments to net-zero at 2050. There’s a lot of things happening quickly, but the market won’t deliver it, and they will deliver some things, but not everything, and that’s where I worry.

There will be some tough choices for governments, and they have to look at this from a type of framework of more than an electoral cycle of five years or four years which is tough for them.

I’m encouraged by voters, particularly young voters interested in governments who will be honest about that and say, ‘okay, you’re not going to see this hydropower plant for seven years.’ It’s not going to happen inside this electoral cycle; it’s a long-term policy, so we must remain optimistic.

It will be very difficult, but something needs to shift in the next couple of years, and we’ve got to make that case as strong as possible.

For a deeper conversation on the role of hydropower on the path to net zero, register today for the Canadian Waterpower Week!

This interview has been edited and condensed.