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Making sustainable hydropower a reality

Whilst being a renewable energy, hydropower has a rather large environmental footprint. From its dams causing flooding to its power plants threatening fish populations, the key to the wider use of hydropower is to make it more sustainable. Thanks to new cost-effective measures developed by the EU-funded FIThydro project, environmentally friendly, sustainable hydropower may soon be a reality.

©kiri #364934390, source: 2021

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Hydropower, or the process of making renewable energy from water, has long played an important role in Europe. In fact, Europe now generates nearly 650 TWh of hydropower every year. But even though this is a considerable amount of energy, it still represents just a fraction of hydropower’s full potential.

One of the key barriers to the advancement of hydropower is its impact on the environment. This includes the flooding caused by dams and the potential harm hydropower plants (HPPs) pose to fish populations.

Determined that hydropower can play an important role in the renewable energy mix, the EU-funded FIThydro project set out to investigate cost-effective measures to mitigate the negative impact HPPs have on the environment. “Our guiding principle is that environmentally friendly and sustainable hydropower can support the development of healthy rivers and self-sustaining fish populations while also supplementing and balancing other renewable energy sources,” says Hany Abo El Wafa, a researcher at the Technical University of Munich and FIThydro’s project manager.

Fish-friendly hydropower

Over the course of the project, researchers have enhanced and developed more than 20 solutions, methods, tools and devices for making sustainable, fish-friendly hydropower a reality. These include a unique system that can help guide fish safely through an HPP’s turbine, a 3D optical and ultrasonic fish-tracking device, and a system for predicting fish mortality risks. The project also developed a number of methods to guide HPP decision-making and, ultimately, raise public awareness about hydropower.

In addition to developing cost-effective mitigation strategies, the project studied how fish behave around and react to hydropower threats. “In doing so, we are helping to ensure that our waterbodies are left in a ‘good state’ for future generations,” adds Abo El Wafa.

A focus on improving existing HPPs

Since Europe’s hydropower potential is, to a large degree, already exploited, any strategy to maximise further expansion must focus on improving existing HPPs. “This means all European countries must take steps to make their HPPs more compatible with EU sustainability goals and ensure that they are environmentally friendly, socially acceptable and economically viable,” notes Abo El Wafa.

Knowing this, the project defined test case studies at HPPs located in various topographical regions across Europe. “These case studies focused on the five main areas of hydropower impact, namely, up- and downstream fish migration, flow, habitat and sediments,” explains Abo El Wafa. “Each case also looked at a different type of power plant set-up and the unique challenges that individual plants face.”

The results of these test case studies, along with all the project’s outcomes and resources, have been compiled and shared via the project’s website, a decision support system and a dedicated Wiki. The project has also published over 70 articles and participated in over 30 conferences and seminars – along with organising the International Conference on Fish-Friendly Hydropower.

According to Abo El Wafa, the FIThydro project not only advanced the state-of-the art in fish-friendly hydropower, it also helped make sustainable hydropower possible. “Our work makes it easier to assess and deal with the ecosystem problems associated with the hydropower production,” he concludes. “This will help change public perception on hydropower, which in turn will ease the acceptance of new projects or refurbishment of old ones.”

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator
Project participants:
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 7 171 550
EU Contribution
€ 5 888 423
Project duration

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