Dam projects steal from Malaysians, says US science envoy

A US State Department science envoy says it would be a tragedy if the renewable energy revolution arrives too late to save the world's rivers and the communities that depend on them. – AFP pic, March 7, 2019.

HYDROELECTRIC dams are not the answer to sustained power generation, said a US State Department science envoy, calling them an attempt to “steal” from Malaysians.

Daniel Kammen, in an op-ed previewing the topics to be discussed at the Clean Energy Collaboration conference in Kuching next week, said future energy requirements for Malaysia, and Sarawak in particular, can “easily, and more cheaply, come from other projects”, namely those on solar and wind generation.

“Arguments to build large dams are actually an effort to steal from current and future Malaysians,” said the coordinating lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“There’s no need to continue accepting tragic trade-offs between healthy rivers and low-cost, reliable and renewable electricity.”

Sarawak plans to build 12 mega hydroelectric dams to meet its projected energy needs and for export to neighbours. It now has two such dams – the 2,400-megawatt (MW) Bakun Dam it bought from the federal government last year, and the 944 MW Murum Dam – as well as a smaller dam in Batang Ai.

The state is building the 1,285MW Baleh Dam, expected to be commissioned in 2025.

Kammen, a professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, said the release of a UN report last October, outlining strategies the world can pursue to keep global warming below 1.5°C and maintain healthy economies and ecosystems, may trigger expanded investment in hydropower, currently the world’s main source for clean energy.

In 2017, hydropower accounted for 70% of power generated worldwide.

Unless the world smartens up about how it implements the UN blueprint, “it could cause irreparable damage to the world’s great rivers”, said Kammen.

“This may sound like a luxury for the richest nations, but it is key to building prosperity in Malaysia and Sarawak.”

If the pattern of earlier dam-building continues,he said, it could accelerate the loss of rivers and their resources, including marine life that sustains millions of people.

He said while Sarawak and Putrajaya “have proven their visionary foresight in acknowledging the environmental and social importance of rivers by cancelling the Baram and Telom Dams”, some quarters still persist that the only way the state and country can prosper is by building large dams.

Kammen called on the state to instead invest in wind and solar energy, saying in the past two years, solar energy has become more economically viable due to technological improvements and economies of scale in production and deployment.

He cited new projects in Chile, Mexico and Saudi Arabia that are a tenth of what they used to cost, at as low as 20 US cents per kilowatt-hour.

“Also tipping the scales toward wind and solar, hydroelectric dams have among the worst performance in terms of delays and cost overruns, in part due to the conflict and controversy surrounding them.

“While some dams take a decade to complete, wind and solar power can be delivered through rapid, smaller-scale and lower-risk projects that tend to engender far less conflict.”

He said governments are taking note, citing Thailand, which earlier this year signalled that it would delay signing a power purchase agreement for Pak Beng, a 912MW dam that Laos is planning to build in the Mekong River.

“Announcing the delay, the country said it needed to revisit its energy strategy, since other renewable sources, including wind and solar, were becoming increasingly viable.

“Thailand was slated to buy 90% of the dam’s electricity, so its change of plans could spell the end of the project.”

The rapidly evolving renewable energy landscape does not mean an end to hydropower, but rather, a shift in its role, said Kammen.

“Hydropower reservoirs are currently the dominant form of energy storage for grids, and although other forms of storage are improving, some dams will continue to provide critical storage services in the near future.

“Upgraded older dams and strategically planned new projects, carefully located to minimise environmental and social disruption, can emphasise energy storage to facilitate adding large increments of wind and solar into a grid.

“It would be a great tragedy if the renewable revolution arrives just a few years too late to save the world’s great rivers and the communities that depend on them.”

The Clean Energy Collaboration conference, to be held on March 15 and 16, is organised by civil groups, namely Sarawak’s Save Rivers, Jaringan Orang Asal Semalaysia and the Sabah-based Pacos Trust. It is supported by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory; University of California, Berkeley; and, the UN Development Project. – March 7, 2019.

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