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Renewable energy - driving species to extinction?

Flickr- Pedro Vásquez Colmenares

Naw…not possible, comes to mind. Especially when you consider the whole world’s renewable spew of investments in the sector.

In fact, I happened to be reading about China’s pride in building the biggest dam. Check out China’s Three Gorges dam, with a capacity of 22,500 MW of power. Great clean power!

But at what cost?

There is a story going around on the internet that the operation of the Three Gorges dam slowed the earth’s rotation a wee bit. The bottom line is that the construction and running of large dams can wreak havoc and affect all species, including humans. 

The Three Gorges dam has flooded of over 632 Sq. KMs with depths of 91 meters, displaced 1.2 million people, and endangered over 500 hundred plant species. The dam has also endangered 27 of the 177 unique fish species in the region. The baiji dolphin, already functionally on the extinct list, has been hugely impacted. The project has also already impacted reproduction; it might already be too late for some.

Dams always change a lot of environmental variables. Almost all infectious diseases are up for grabs too.

Three Gorges Dam China.jpgImage: Wikimedia Commons- Centpacrr

But let us not isolate just this dam. Every dam causes intense damage and imbalance in the local environment.

Even though hydropower is the good guy compared to the coal, gas or oil the world burns by puffing out tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the impact of hydropower is more quickly felt by all aquatic and plant species.

Is there another way around this? Something that causes less damage? Yes, and the UK might have a more sustainable option for hydropower.

Windsor Castle, home of the reigning Queen of the United Kingdom, finally got green power on December 20, 2011. It cost less than $4 million and uses a turbine powered by an Archimedes screw on the Thames River. A set of two turbines powers the Castle and about 300 homes. That is a lot of power with minimal negative impact.

Windsor Castle.jpgImage: Wikimedia Commons- Diliff

I was very impressed when I read about small-scale hydro. Archimedean screws use an ancient technology, but in reverse (Click to be amazed!). They tap into rivers with a low head (typical depth of the dam will be about 1-8 meters with a high flow) and are friendly to fish! Besides they are quicker to build, cheaper to run and do not mess with the river system, flora and fauna, or the people who depend on them.

Another example of small-scale hydropower is found in India, specifically in the Uttarkhand area. Across this mountainous and beautiful region there are now plans to build over 500 dams. But the plan does not call for the use of an ancient water wheel (Gharats), actually over 60,000 of them. Used primarily for grinding food grain, these ancient water wheels have been modified and could produce up to 1.5 to 5 kW of energy. They could be built on rivers and streams with little or no damage to the environment, and would cost less than $5,000. Though of course this does not come close to tapping into the region’s potential to produce 65000 MW of power.

The need for more energy leads us down many paths. Some are treacherous, but others can lead us in the right direction for a more sustainable future.