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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder9. Clean energy for planetary survival
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe industrial revolution
View the documentThe use of hydroelectricity
View the documentThe age of petroleum
View the documentNuclear power
View the documentThe clean options

The use of hydroelectricity

Hydroelectric power was one answer to the increasing need for energy and the problems caused by burning wood and coal. Electricity had been discovered by the end of the 19th century and the spread of its use during the first decades of the 20th century allowed a new approach to energy production. The first large hydroelectric dams were built in the 1920s and 1930s. The Hoover Dam - constructed between 1930 and 1936 on the border between Arizona and Nevada, with a capacity of almost 1.4 million kilowatts and a volume of 3.36 million cubic metres - represented the largest single investment in energy production in history. Just 6 years later, the United States constructed a new dam, almost four and a half times more powerful with a capacity of almost 6.2 million kilowatts, at Grand Coulee, and this was only the beginning! The dam-construction spree spread quickly throughout the world. Thousands of dams were built in most industrial and in many nonindustrial countries and, in many cases, their distribution decisively influenced the location of industries and related urbanization.

Hydroelectricity has been considered to be one of the less risky sources of energy. Hydropower is renewable, it does not contaminate the environment, and it does not produce unwanted emissions. At most generating sites, however, there has been considerable environmental degradation:

· River ecosystems have been profoundly disturbed.

· Many biological species have decreased in number or disappeared.

· Large tracts of good land have been flooded.

· Extensive wetland ecosystems have been destroyed.

· Supplies of nutrients to downstream alluvial plains have decreased, harming farmers who depended on these natural fertilizers.

· Newly irrigated areas have become the focus of waterborne diseases.

· Soils have been salinized or have become waterlogged.

· Fishing communities have lost their livelihood.

· Indigenous peoples have been displaced from their traditional lands, with insufficient compensation often improperly awarded.

· Archeological sites have been covered by water.

· Hydrological regimes have been modified.

· Seismic activity has increased in some places.

The environment and societies may pay a high price for this “clean” energy. In some cases, the price can be too high.