How to improve the public perception of large-scale hydropower development is one of the key themes perenially explored by this industry. While the arguments for hydro technology's economic performance, longevity and capacity factors are unassailable in many applications, there are still considerable challenges to overcome with respect to the public perception of the technology's environmental credentials, particularly where large dams are featured along with their associated inundated reservoirs.
That a panel of the International Hydropower Association (IHA) has conducted the first sustainability assessment of a hydroelectric project – Australia's 95.8 MW Trevallyn project – using the recently developed Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol is certainly a welcome development in this respect.
IHA launched the assessment protocol, a comprehensive tool to assess the sustainability of hydropower projects globally, at the IHA 2011 World Congress on Advancing Sustainable Hydropower in June in Brazil. In this first assessment, a team from the trade group began an evaluation of run-of river Trevallyn, which is operated by Hydro Tasmania and was commissioned in 1955 on the South Esk River, with a site visit in October.
Because the protocol's systems are still being developed and assessors are still being trained, the assessment was classed as unofficial, but it nonetheless evaluated the sustainability of Trevallyn's operations using a structured and internationally consistent methodology and furthermore identified opportunities for improvement.
Upon completion, an unofficial sustainability assessment report is to be made available to interested stakeholders. It also is to be used as part of IHA's training course for its Sustainability Partners and as a model of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol program.
As a consistent and comparable set of guides to the sustainability of hydro developments, even those more than half a century old, this protocol must be recognized as a highly valuable mechanism to educate those interested parties. But, one of the most important mechanisms to improve public perception of hydro and its sustainability credentials must be clear communications from the industry in general. The project owners, developers, investors and original equipment manufacturers must all play their part in maintaining and expanding this culture.
Openness, clarity and consistency must be the watchwords of the hydropower industry in its public communication measures if it is to capitalize on today's era of interest in new hydro capacity, both in the developing world and elsewhere. Without it, the sector risks a return to the dark days when its clear advantages were overshadowed by a perception of poor environmental performance, and that is a perception that is not only damaging, it is not true.