Austria’s hydropower sector grapples with climate change impact


In the face of diminishing water resources caused by climate change, Austria, heavily reliant on hydropower for its electricity production, is facing unprecedented challenges. As a country that derives over 60 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, compared to the global average of 16 percent, Austria’s hydropower sector has been hit hard by decreasing water levels, leading to a decline in electricity generation. In response, a large-scale underground project is underway to store hydropower and mitigate the effects of erratic weather patterns and reduced rainfall.

Austria, with its network of more than 3,100 dams situated along its rivers, witnessed a drop in hydropower generation from approximately 45 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2020 to 42 TWh in 2021 due to falling water levels. Alarmed by this decline, Austria had to resort to importing electricity for the first time last year, adding urgency to the situation.

Nestled in the Austrian Alps near the village of Kaprun in the Salzburg region, a significant construction site for the Limberg 3 pumped storage power plant is nearing completion. Scheduled to be operational by 2025, the plant aims to store excess power and cater to peak electricity consumption, countering the effects of changing weather patterns, including irregular and unpredictable rainfall. Klaus Hebenstreit, an executive of the main electricity producer Verbund, stressed the importance of being well-prepared for future scenarios. He explained that the distribution of water throughout the year would alter, with reduced water availability in summer due to drought and increased availability in winter due to snow melting.

According to Roman Neunteufel, a senior researcher at Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Austria, like the rest of Europe, has experienced two years of drought. The impact of consecutive dry years has been striking, with water levels at their lowest point since records began a century ago. The recent report by the World Meteorological Organization and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service warns that Europe should expect more deadly heatwaves as a result of climate change. It revealed that the continent experienced a temperature increase of 2.3 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times, making it the fastest-warming region worldwide.

Despite facing criticism from activists concerned about the environmental impact of dams and hydropower plants, Verbund, a semi-public company, remains committed to investing billions of euros in hydropower generation. The World Wildlife Fund emphasizes the need for ecologically and socially compatible hydropower expansion while emphasizing the importance of energy conservation as a solution to Austria’s energy challenges.

Nonetheless, Verbund is also exploring alternative energy sources. “Water will continue to be extremely important for us, but we also want to develop photovoltaic and wind energy… We are diversifying,” stated Hebenstreit. Austria, aiming to rely entirely on renewable energy by 2030, has been relatively slow in developing wind and solar power, which currently contribute only 13 percent of its electricity production.

Experts like Neunteufel recognize the seasonal limitations of solar and wind energy. While solar energy is abundant in the summer, its production drops significantly during winter when it is most needed for heating. Similarly, wind power is unpredictable, with periods of calm that result in a decline in production.

As Austria grapples with the consequences of climate change on its hydropower-dependent energy sector, the country faces the complex task of diversifying its energy mix while simultaneously addressing the environmental and social impacts of such transitions. With the ambitious goal of achieving a fully renewable energy supply within the next decade, Austria must navigate these challenges to ensure a sustainable and resilient future for its energy sector.

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