The Juggling Game: Hydroelectricity In A Time of Climate Change

(With research assistance of Lucas Johnston-Peck)

The fact is simple and can no longer be avoided; our planet is warming and changing at an alarming rate and it is due to humans. Climate change. Let’s face it, it’s not normally 70 degrees in February and then snowing the next day. And as we move forward to combat the destruction of our natural world the major questions we face are of energy production. How can we decrease our carbon emissions? How can we use new methods of energy production to lower our environmental impact? Among renewable energy alternatives stands hydroelectric power, harnessing the power of the water to create electric power, electricity.

“… It’s renewable right, we’re never going to run out of flowing water, so being able to take that flowing water and convert it to electricity is a huge advantage. Compared to coal, oil, natural gas which we will eventually run out of,” says Susan Robinson, head of the GFS Science Department.

Hydroelectricity performs simply, in most plants water flows into a reservoir and is then released, powering turbines and then a generator, creating electricity. While this system may be carbon free its environmental impacts can in fact be devastating and in this article the Corner will explore two cases of hydroelectricity, their unfortunate consequences and why you should care.

The Yangtze River flows through central China, the heart of the ancient empire and at one of its forks lies the largest electric power plant in the world. Three Gorges Dam. 2,039 miles across it dams the entire Yangtze River a testament to human engineering. And its consequences.

First proposed in 1919, by Sun Yat-Sen the dam began construction in 1993 and was fully operational in 2008. At its construction it was seen as revolutionary and would have powered 10% of China’s population an astounding use of renewable energy. That was the estimation but by 2008 it would only be able to support 3% of China’s soaring population, still impressive but not what was promised. Likewise the ambitious installation of additional turbines in 2011 was supposed to raise production from 18,300MW to 22,500MW however in the years since the instillation the energy production of the dam has remained consistently below both estimates. Yet despite this it seems like a fantastic investment: energy production, tourism, easier shipping and prevention of the annual floods that killed 300,000 in the twentieth century.

And its renewable right? The $32 billion+ poured into the construction and maintenance of this dam are helping the environment? Yes, and no. While it is true that three gorges is a ‘carbon free’ plant its human and environmental impacts have been nothing short of disastrous. Over one million people were displaced in the construction of the dam and one-hundred workers died in the process. And if this was not enough the environmental impacts have been devastating. Landslides and erosion destroyed houses and surrounding land. National Geographic estimated that ten million tons of garbage have been released into the Yangtze a large part due to the dam, along with unbelievable pollution. National Geographic further estimated that a 50% drop in delta sediment had occurred in addition to the obvious endangerment to fish and local wildlife. And then there is the tragedy of the Yangtze River Dolphin. A blind echolocating dolphin coincidentally discovered in the same year that its destruction was assured by Sun Yat-Sen’s proposal. Endangered by shipping and pollution a dam through its homeland came as the final blow. And in 2006 two years before the dam became fully operational it was officially declared extinct. (In the years since China has continued to prove its disregard with anything dolphin, most recently the vaquita.) It is a cautionary tale. A dam built without any real consideration of its consequences. Providing energy to 3% of China’s billion person population but at what cost? Where must we draw the line?

17,000 kilometers away we are about to make the same mistake, with far greater consequences. The Xingu River is one of those tributaries of the Amazon normally just labelled under Amazon Basin but recent events are making its name famous, or rather infamous. For as massive corporations resume deforestation of the Amazon the Brazilian Government has set its eyes on a new target: the river itself.

Part of Brazil’s massive new infrastructure plan the Belo Monte Dam is the third largest hydroelectric facility facility in the world the second being the equally controversial Itaipu Dam also located in Brazil. Theoretically Belo Monte could produce 11,233 MWH a year but in reality the dry season of the Amazon would make energy production highly inefficient and possibly as low as 800-1000 MWH in the annual dry season. And now we come to the controversy which in many ways makes Belo Monte the DAPL of Brazil. Not only does the dam have startling environmental impacts, it also threatens to destroy many Amazonian tribes way of life. To them the river is life, water, food, a roadway and Belo Monte threatens to destroy so much of this. The river is these tribes life and home. Many of these groups such as the Kayápo have been protesting for decades and despite halting the project multiple times but it has prevail. Even in the wake of massive corruption scandals the dam still stands and disaster is waiting when it is turned on. In the space beneath the dam which would almost certainly be destroyed there are at least 10 totally unique fish species found nowhere else in the world and probably many more. When the dam is turned on, they are gone. Leading the effort for science in this “race against time” is the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, rushing to catalogue and document these species before they are lost.

Despite all this hydroelectricity has one major thing going for it: its renewable. And with our planet’s climate changing rapidly and many nations (including us) burning coal like there’s no tomorrow we must move towards non-carbon emitting energy resources. But is it non-carbon emitting?

“In terms of fossil fuel dependence it is far and above where we are currently in terms of carbon emissions and the damaging effects it has on the atmosphere and the carbon cycle,” says Jessa Agner, a GFS science teacher and former marine biologist. “However they are [hydroelectric facilities] incredibly resource draining in terms of building and production. So the building and production of a hydroelectric facility means there is incredible amounts of fossil fuels being used, to build that. So all of the transportation, now that is something that can’t really actually be avoided, that’s kind of a cyclical thing because in order to transport materials we’re going to have to use things that use fossil fuels so they’re not a carbon neutral source of power.”

Even hydroelectricity claim to fame is slightly tainted, not quite carbon free and certainly not environmentally friendly. But we still need this energy and we need cleaner options in the short term and in addition to the long term. So where does it fall? Should there be more of it?

“If I was on a board to examine and think about alternative forms of energy, being a former marine biologist myself hydroelectricity would not be at the top of my list,” responded Jessa Agner.

“Anything that moves us away from fossil fuels is a good thing, if I were in charge I don’t know that hydroelectric is the direction I would want to be pointing the country,” said Susan Robinson. “… it’s better than fossil fuels but there are some serious environmental consequences to it and there are other alternative energy resources that I think of as superior.”

Hydroelectricity, similar to nuclear, is an energy source which we cannot lose as of now. Its effects are devastating but we cannot undo what is already done. Therefore as we look the future, turning away from coal and fossil fuels we should also move away from hydro, as a secondary goal. Because we must realize, our actions today, our energy sources today will be what determines the future of this planet. Hydro, like our actions today is a juggling game, we must look at each effect and consequence, gone is the time where we can act blindly because the future of the world rests on our middle school shoulders.

“Kids now, whether they realise it or not are going to be the policy makers when the consequences are very real. And it’s my hope that they are educated and that they and make the right policies and that it’s not too late,” said Robinson.

“Really this is an issue [climate change and energy production] future stability of the planet and I think that it’s not something that any young person can look at and question or deny in terms of what kind of havoc is being wreaked on our environment because of our constant demand for electricity. And that’s not going away,” said Agner. “So the really exciting thing to be a student interested in science and the environment is that this is a wide open field and there’s so much to learn and discover so to be able to say ‘I want to grow up and study and invent a new form of alternative energy’ or ‘I’m going to dedicate my life to work on the world energy crisis’ is a really exciting and empowering time to be a youth because it’s really a now or never situation.”

The truth is the future does not lie in the hands of an executive branch or a mega energy company. It is through individual and community action that we can change the minds of those in power and make a change. The future of our earth lies in our hands. What will it be?


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