Deploy Diverse Renewables to Save Tropical Rivers

Demand for clean energy is soaring across developing nations in Africa, South America and southeast Asia.Should they invest billions of dollars in tried-and-tested hydropower, damming yet more rivers to generate electricity? Or should they spend on emerging solar, wind and energy-storage technologies, the costs of which have plummeted in the past decade?

A surge of dam development across the tropics threatens to interrupt the planet’s last free-flowing rivers — including the Mekong, Congo, Amazon and Irrawaddy. The lives of millions of people and many species depend on these rivers. The projects address important energy needs, but advocates often overestimate economic benefits and underestimate the far-reaching effects on biodiversity and important fisheries.

By contrast, spreading a variety of renewable energy sources strategically across river basins could produce power reliably and cheaply while protecting these crucial rivers and their local communities. Solar, wind, microhydro and energy-storage technologies have caught up with large hydropower in price and effectiveness. Hundreds of small generators woven into a ‘smart grid’ (which automatically responds to changes in supply and demand) can outcompete a big dam.

A strategic mix of solar, wind and storage technologies around river basins would be safer and cheaper than building large dams, argue Rafael J. P. Schmitt, Noah Kittner and colleagues.

Deploy Diverse Renewables to Save Tropical Rivers

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