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Is Hydroelectricity Really A Green Energy Source?

By Roger Vanderlely

Hydroelectricity is often presented as a green energy source, but how true is this? Hydro has several environmental and aesthetic drawbacks that make it less than ideal compared to the clean energy provided by sources such as wind and sun.

There is much talk about the environmental impacts of hydroelectric power, as they rely on damming of rivers and permanent flooding of the low lying land behind the dam. While this is not desirable, it is merely an alteration to the environment. If the dam remained flooded this would not pose long term ecological threats to us from this modification.

What does cause problems, however, is the significant amount of methane generated by hydroelectric energy installations. Methane is produced when organic matter breaks down anaerobically (without oxygen). This is similar to the processes that resulted in the formation of coal, oil and natural gas.

Consider the following chain of events that unfold once the dam has been constructed.

First the land is submerged and the vegetation with it. The vegetation drowns and begins to rot. Since there is very little available oxygen, the plant material breaks down to form, among other things, methane that is absorbed by the water.

So far all is normal, just the same as any other permanent flooding. But since this is a power station and in most cases also an urban water supply, the levels tend to fluctuate annually. The water levels drop in dry times. This exposes sections of land at the bottom of the dam.

As soon as these areas are exposed they blossom with new plant life. This happens at the edge of the water in the dam as the water level drops. Since most Hydroelectric dams are quite shallow, a great deal of land is exposed annually in this way.

After a time the rains return and the dam fills up again. The new vegetation is then also covered with water and so rots anaerobically and so more methane enters the water of the dam.

This continues year after year, resulting in a slow but steady increase in the amount of methane absorbed in the water of the dam. This is a problem because methane is not very soluble in water. When the water passes through the dam’s turbines it escapes the water and enters the atmosphere.

Methane is approximately 21 times more effective than Carbon Dioxide as a greenhouse agent. This makes hydroelectric energy anywhere up to three times more polluting per megawatt of electricity generated than the equivalent coal or oil fired power station. This figure is dependent on the climate the dam is located in and the geography of the region. The effect is significant nonetheless, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now taking hydroelectric energy methane production into account when inventorying national greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes Hydroelectricity is a renewable energy source but it should not be seen as clean. Attaching electricity generators to urban water supply dams is logical, but other than that it would be far more sensible to use cleaner renewables such as wind and solar for electricity production. These power sources have no emissions at all associated with them once they have been constructed.

For more information on electricity generation and its issues, visit the Fossil Fuels section of Roger Vanderlely’s website. There you can also find out about getting a good deal on cheap solar panels to become more energy independent and do your bit for the environment.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Vanderlely, Roger "Is Hydroelectricity Really A Green Energy Source?." Is Hydroelectricity Really A Green Energy Source?. 7 Oct. 2010. 14 Mar 2015 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Vanderlely, R (2010, October 7). Is Hydroelectricity Really A Green Energy Source?. Retrieved March 14, 2015, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Vanderlely, Roger "Is Hydroelectricity Really A Green Energy Source?"

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