A new study conducted by researchers from the Delft University of Technology has concluded that the total theoretical energy generating potential of hydropower is 52 petawatt-hours per year, a quarter of the global energy demand expected by 2020.
Researchers from the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands recently published an article in the journal PLOS One which served to calculate the “gross theoretical hydropower potential” — the no-holds-barred calculation for how much hydroelectricity could be generated if all avenues were exploited. The figure came to 52 petawatt-hours per year (PWh/year), which is roughly equal to 33% of the current amount of energy needed globally each year, and around a quarter of what is expected to be needed by 2020.
It is important to note, however, that this does not necessarily represent the likely potential of hydropower. As the authors themselves note in their introduction, “Hydropower energy potential is typically divided into a) gross theoretical potential, b) technical potential, and c) economically feasible potential:
The gross theoretical potential expresses the total amount of electricity that could potentially be generated if all available water resources were devoted to this use. The technically exploitable potential represents the hydropower capacity that is attractive and readily available with existing technology. The economically feasible potential is that amount of hydropower generating capacity that could be built after conducting a feasibility study on each site at current prices and producing a positive outcome.
The study found 11.8 million locations which could theoretically provide hydroenergy, though as the authors point out, “many of the locations cannot be developed for (current) technical or economic reasons.” The ratio between the technical, economic, and exploitable potential and the gross potential is, respectively, 20%, 16%, and 13%. However, these figures nevertheless highlight the massive potential available to us by looking to develop more hydroenergy sources — especially when you consider that hydropower currently accounts for around 3% of the annual energy requirement.
Of course, as the authors point out repeatedly throughout the study, these are highly idealistic scenarios and, as the ratio figures between the technical, economic, and exploitable potential show, do not necessarily represent hydroenergy statistics that we will likely see anytime soon.
Hydropower potential is also categorized in terms of pico, micro, mini, small, and large hydropower plants:
Large hydropower plants are plants with an installed capacity above 10 MW. The potential locations of large plants are generally known. However, the accumulated global potential of small (<10 MW), mini (<1 MW), micro (<0.1 MW) and pico (<0.005 MW) hydropower is in the current practice roughly estimated, at best, and the locations where plants might be installed are generally unknown at global scale.
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