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Hydropower offers significant potential for carbon emissions reductions. The installed capacity of hydropower by the end of 2008 contributed 16% of worldwide electricity supply, and hydropower remains the largest source of renewable energy in the electricity sector. On a global basis, the technical potential for hydropower is unlikely to constrain further deployment in the near to medium term. Hydropower is technically mature, is often economically competitive with current market energy prices and is already being deployed at a rapid pace. Situated at the crossroads of two major issues for development, water and energy, hydro reservoirs can often deliver services beyond electricity supply. The significant increase in hydropower capacity over the last 10 years is anticipated in many scenarios to continue in the near term (2020) and medium term (2030), with various environmental and social concerns representing perhaps the largest challenges to continued deployment if not carefully managed.
Hydropower is a renewable energy source where power is derived from the energy of water moving from higher to lower elevations. It is a proven, mature, predictable and typically price-competitive technology. Hydropower has among the best conversion efficiencies of all known energy sources (about 90% efficiency, water to wire). It requires relatively high initial investment, but has a long lifespan with very low operation and maintenance costs. The levelized cost of electricity for hydropower projects spans a wide range but, under good conditions, can be as low as 3 to 5 US cents2005 per kWh.
Historically, economic development has been strongly correlated with increasing energy use and growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Renewable energy (RE) can help decouple that correlation, contributing to sustainable development (SD). In addition, RE offers the opportunity to improve access to modern energy services for the poorest members of society, which is crucial for the achievement of any single of the eight Millennium Development Goals.
Theoretical concepts of SD can provide useful frameworks to assess the interactions between SD and RE. SD addresses concerns about relationships between human society and nature. Traditionally, SD has been framed in the three-pillar model—Economy, Ecology, and Society—allowing a schematic categorization of development goals, with the three pillars being interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Within another conceptual framework, SD can be oriented along a continuum between the two paradigms of weak sustainability and strong sustainability. The two paradigms differ in assumptions about the substitutability of natural and human-made capital. RE can contribute to the development goals of the three-pillar model and can be assessed in terms of both weak and strong SD, since RE utilization is defined as sustaining natural capital as long as its resource use does not reduce the potential for future harvest.
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