Water Framework Directive causing drought for European small hydropower?

Autor: Rodrigo Mesquita, EREF Policy Advisor , 01.07.2019

Directive 2000/60/EC or the Water Framework Directive (WFD) is meant to ensure the ‘Good Ecological Status’ (GES) of European waters. It requires from those who use water for economic or other purposes,...

... the achievement of a set of conditions to meet such status. However, in many cases, the WFD unintentionally obstructs the development of hydropower.

The WFD allows for exemptions from achieving GES on an economic basis (if the cost of a measure to achieve GES is considered as disproportionately costly, then slightly less strict conditions apply). A cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is the method of choice to balance environmental costs and benefits but the WFD does not specify which parameters should be used in such an analysis. Costs are usually overestimated and non-quantifiable benefits tend to not be included. Defining the area of influence of a project has also proven difficult. In some cases, the value of benefits are multiplied by the number of nearby inhabitants, which is problematic for small hydropower plants which are usually located near scarcely populated areas. In some cases, CBA considers only the costs of construction of fish passages, ignoring the loss of revenue from energy generation due to the discharge in to the fish passage as well as the management and maintenance costs of such.

WFD without EU funding
The WFD is also incoherent with other EU policy. The costs of some environmental mitigation measures required to achieve GES are unfeasibly high for small hydropower operators which is a financial death sentence when one considers that the WFD has no dedicated EU funding for its implementation. The LIFE financing programme for environment and climate amounts to EUR 3.4 Bil whereas in contrast, the EU’s Regional Funds and the CAP amount to EUR 350 Bil and EUR 290 Bil respectively. Additionally, in 2015 entered the Paris Agreement and revamped its energy policy for the next decade in order to decarbonise its energy supply, reduce its dependency on energy imports and ensure its security of energy supply. The development of hydropower would serve these objectives but the WFD blocks this development.
Small hydropower specifically has a key role to play in the transformation of the EU’s energy system: As the energy system transitions from a centrally based system, with large fossil fuel utilities producing a large volume of electricity and transmitting to a large number of consumers, to a more decentralised system with scattered independent renewable energy producers, small hydropower has a key role in maintaining the stability of an electricity grid powered entirely by intermittent renewable sources. With the WFD currently being checked for whether it is fit for purpose by the European Commission, now is a crucial time for the EU legislator to recognise and prioritise the benefits offered by small hydropower in the fight against climate change.

Workshops in Salzburg in fall
The European Commission has finished its information gathering process for the fitness check of the WFD and is currently digesting it while it is working to produce a report which should be released near to autumn which will conclude whether or not the WFD is to be revised or not. The European Renewable Energies Federation’s Small Hydropower Chapter which represents the interests of Small Hydropower at EU-level and unites Small Hydropower stakeholders from 14 Member States, will organise workshops on this at RENEXPO INTERHYDRO in Salzburg in November later this year.


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