Let’s talk about hydropower

One of the reasons why we have launched the EKOenergy ecolabel is to help consumers identify and choose the most environmentally friendly renewable energy products available. As a nature conservation NGO, our priority regarding renewable energy is, of course, its sustainability and impact on biodiversity.

EKOenergy financed and joined the rowing event to demonstrate against building a new dam on the only free-flowing stretch of Kemijoki in 2018.

Hydropower unfortunately still makes up the majority of renewable energy production in many parts of the world, despite the huge and growing potential of solar and wind energy. This includes northern Europe, where the EKOenergy ecolabel started its journey in 2013. We are aware that many existing hydropower installations are not sustainable and their operations can be improved until they’re no longer needed.

Whenever we communicate about EKOenergy-labelled hydropower, we get questions such as:
“Do you work with small hydropower?”
“Do you approve of large hydropower?”
“But this hydropower plant doesn’t fit the age requirement for LEED green building rating system, why does EKOenergy approve it?” 

In this article, we’ll answer these and other questions we often get regarding EKOenergy-labelled hydropower.

Wildlife shouldn’t pay for our renewable energy targets

Why is the sustainability of the hydropower sector important? The answer is clear: Migratory freshwater fish are among the most threatened animals on the planet. A study found that around the world, migratory freshwater fish numbers are dropping faster than migratory species both on land and in the ocean. Hydropower dams, blocking fish migration and hence preventing their access to spawning grounds, are one of the causes. Habitat loss due to redirecting river branches for hydropower generation also has a negative impact.

According to the Living Planet Index for Migratory Freshwater Fish by the World Fish Migration Foundation, Europe has experienced the greatest decline in migratory freshwater fish populations in the past 50 years, seeing a staggering 93% decline, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with an 84% reduction.

EKOenergy advocates for practical solutions to take the renewables industry to a more sustainable place, and aims at making energy consumers more aware of the impact of renewable energy generation on the environment. Making up more than 50% of the global renewable electricity generation capacity, hydropower remains the primary renewable electricity technology and thus demanding sustainable practices from the hydropower sector makes a big difference. 

Decision-makers and investors have taken decades to show climate ambition, yet consumers have the power to shape the energy sector by taking instant action. By allowing EKOenergy consumers to use our logo in their communication, we wish to encourage all positive steps in the right direction. So how is EKOenergy-labelled hydropower different?

1. EKOenergy doesn’t approve new hydropower installations and requires sustainability measures on existing ones

EKOenergy-labelled hydropower fulfils extra sustainability criteria, to make sure additional steps are taken to protect biodiversity. What is familiar to many is that standards and ecolabels require “new” installations, while it is exactly the new hydropower dams that harm the local ecosystems. EKOenergy doesn’t approve building new dams and EKOenergy’s approval of a hydropower installation needs to be renewed every 5 years.

Since a majority of renewable energy generation comes from hydropower sources, EKOenergy makes it easier for energy consumers to go for more sustainable hydropower than those which possibly harm the local biodiversity. You can read more about EKOenergy’s sustainability criteria for hydropower here. To sum up, it’s not about the size of the installation, but about the environmental impact.

EKOenergy’s sustainability criteria for hydropower include the following elements:

  • Fish species typical to the water basin can pass the hydropower installation upstream and downstream on their own as needed.
  • The operation of the plant guarantees an adequate and uninterrupted water flow through the bypass channel or through turbines.            
  • Habitats for species that inhabit and reproduce in the river ecosystems are available in the section of water body where the hydropower plant is located.
  • The EKOenergy ecolabel is only applicable to power generation from dams and barriers that were constructed before 1 January 2013.
  • Through EKOenergy’s Environmental Fund, 0.10 €/MWh of hydropower consumption goes to river restoration projects that restore habitats of aquatic species.

Also see our short video about EKOenergy’s hydropower criteria on Youtube:

2. EKOenergy users help finance river restoration projects

EKOenergy’s Environmental Fund finances riverbed restoration projects, including dam removals. This means those who purchase electricity coming from hydropower installations can make an additional, positive impact to revitalize river species by opting for the EKOenergy label. 

These projects take place in parts of the world where the sales of EKOenergy-labelled renewable energy are made. So far, EKOenergy-labelled hydropower was mainly in Finland and Germany. Projects that received funding thanks to EKOenergy users include:

Since 2015, EKOenergy’s Environmental Fund has provided financing for 24 projects worth more than 400,000 euros. Comparatively, since most EKOenergy consumers choose energy coming from wind and solar installations, our contribution to fighting energy poverty in developing countries exceeds 1 million euros. You can read more about our Climate Fund and the projects that bring us closer to reaching global goals here.

EKOenergy volunteers also participated in a rowing event to protest against building a new dam on Kemijoki, organized by the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation Rovaniemi branch. This demonstration also received funding from EKOenergy’s Environmental Fund and brought the topic to the attention of the Finnish public.

To learn more about what EKOenergy consumers help us achieve, see our results. You can stay updated about EKOenergy’s work by following us on social media: Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Xing.