Revision of the Renewable Energy Directive: Protect EU rivers from new hydropower plants!

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12 Nov

In order to achieve the EU’s ambition to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the Commission has proposed a revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The Directive aims to gradually replace carbon-intensive energy production with renewable energy installations. Under the revision of the RED, Member States would be required to increase the share of renewables in their energy mix to 40% by 2030 in order to be on track to meet the 2050 target.

Hydroelectricity is presented as one solution to reach this target, but its production causes adverse effects on the environment.
Hydroelectricity causes severe environmental damages
Far from being harmless, hydroelectricity power plants affect the water quality and temperature, change the river flows and the water’s oxygen level with negative consequences on the whole river’s ecosystem. Hydropower installations create downstream and upstream barriers to fish, making migration almost impossible and thus affecting the fish capacity of completing their life cycle.
Today, more than 400 freshwater species protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives depend on river and lake ecosystems for their survival. The 2020 report of the World Fish Migration Foundation, the Living Planet Index, found that migratory freshwater fish have globally declined by an average of 76% since 1970. This decline is even more pronounced in Europe (-93%). This dramatic situation is due to Europe’s rivers being in a highly degraded state and under immense pressure including from hydropower.
This state of facts comes out whereas there are more than 21,000 hydropower stations installed in Europe, of which 91% are small plants producing negligible amounts of energy (less than 10MW). Those latter only contribute to 2.1% of the total renewable electricity production which hardly offset a severe biodiversity loss. Besides, future developments appear dim, as 8,785 additional plants are planned or under construction, out of which 28% would be installed in protected areas.
Make the RED consistent with the EU environmental law and Biodiversity Strategy
In order to prevent irreversible damages, the Living Rivers Europe (LRE) NGO coalition – of which EAA is part – advocates for amendments to the Commission’s proposal on the revision of the RED. The LRE calls on the EU financial institutions and Member States to stop subsidising new capacities installation – especially small hydropower plants – and to redirect fundings to allow for the removal or the ecological refurbishing of existing plants.

The revision of the Renewable Energy Directive must not only help put the EU on track towards the objective of climate neutrality; it must also be consistent with the overall European Green Deals objectives. Those include in particular the new Biodiversity strategy which sets down a commitment of restoring at least 25,000 km of rivers to a free flowing state by 2030.

In its 2020 position paper on hydropower, EAA has called for an obligation for Member States to designate ‘no go’ areas for hydropower installations to protect the very few remaining pristine river systems in Europe such as some Alpine areas and Natura 2000 sites. This type of areas is known to be crucial for breeding of vulnerable and endangered fish species. The revised RED should include a ‘no go’ for new hydropower in protected areas.

What’s next for the directive?

The revision of the RED is still in discussion within European institutions. On 14 October 2021, the Commission presented its proposal for the revision of the RED to the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee. Meanwhile, the Council of the EU has started to examine this file within the Working Party on Energy. Over the next months, both institutions will have to adopt their respective positions on the proposed revision, before entering in negotiations to agree on the legislation.
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