Global Warming Brought on by Hydroelectric Power?

Global Warming -  Tom Shepstone Reports Tom Shepstone
Shepstone Management Company, Inc.


Those who worry about global warming and the contributions of methane emissions to it ought to turn their attention to hydroelectric power.

Fractivists who lie awake at night worrying about global warming (I’m not one of them) obsess on the idea methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and like to think methane leaks from natural gas production must, therefore, outweigh the benefits of CO2 reduction from switching to natural gas. This is the fundamental theme of Bob Howarth’s and Tony Ingraffea’s junk science, after all, research that has been panned by almost every responsible scientist of any credibility on the issue.

Global Warming Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.39.14 AM

The industry’s response has been to point to the criticisms of other academics and to note it has, with green completions (see Fracmaster Green Completions equipment depicted to right) and the like, been steadily lowering methane emissions. That’s all true, but there’s another major point to be made and it is this; hydroelectric power, the largest source of renewable energy, the alternative fractivists would have us believe solves all problems, produces methane in huge quantities.

Methane Emissions Declining As Shale Production Increases

Methane emissions associated with natural gas development and use, contrary to the fractivist hype, have been plunging since 2008 when Marcellus Shale development started in earnest. According to the EPA they’ve dropped by 21.7 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent or 14.3%, despite huge increases in shale gas production. The reason; ever improved technology and green completions.  This accounted for 31.8% of the total reduction in methane emissions in the US. Yes, they have been reduced, although you would never know it from the fractivist hysteria. See Energy In Depth generated chart (from our Fact Sheets collection) below:

Global Warming Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.24.02 AM

There are three other things you will never hear from fractivists worried about methane either. One is that natural sources of methane dwarf the contributions of natural gas development and use. Another EPA study conducted in 2010 indicates natural sources of methane total 208 million metric tons, of which 170 are associated with wetlands, but this is without converting to the CO2 equivalent, which means the number is far higher in terms of greenhouse gas effects.

How much higher is anyone’s guess, which is the second point readers should note because the calculations of relative contributions of methane are wildly different, depending on the source. The EPA, in 2010, for example didn’t provide a number but suggested natural sources were 37% of total methane emissions (567 million tons altogether) which indicates there’s something wrong with its numbers because a couple of years later it claimed man-made sources accounted for just slightly more than that and this was after adjusting to a CO2 equivalent basis. EPA made that adjustment using a multiple of 21.

Likewise, two different Scientific American articles, one in January of this year and the other a few days ago, came up with much different multiples of 30 and 84, respectively, apparently depending on the number of years examined. The science is a muddle, in other words, and the real impact of methane emissions related to natural gas development and use is far from clear. We do know that impact is shrinking, however, even as we produce and use more of it from shale formations.

Methane Emissions from Renewable Hydrolectric Power  

Scientific American magazine, which has taken a very politically correct tact in recent years, not to mention putting out all sorts of different numbers to make its cases, has, nonetheless, provided some interesting new information. That most recent article to which we referred above offers the third thing most readers may not realize about methane emissions. It is that hydroelectric power, which represented 51% of all renewable power generation in the US in 2013, accounts for major methane emissions.

Hydroelectric Methane Emissions Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 6.21.51 AM

Here are some of the tidbits from the piece (emphasis added):

Big dams built in the tropics to produce hydroelectricity have long been highly controversial − and data gathered in Laos by a French team studying methane emissions confirms that dams can add to global warming, not reduce it

As long ago as 2007, researchers at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research calculated that the world’s largest dams emitted 104 million tons of methane annually and were responsible for 4 percent of the human contribution to climate change.

Since methane has an impact 84 times higher over 20 years than the same quantity of carbon dioxide, this is a serious short-term threat to pushing the planet towards the danger threshold of increasing temperatures by 2˚C .

Despite the warnings that big dams in the tropics might be adding to climate change, governments go on building them − while often claiming that large dams equal clean energy.

The new research shows that the methane discharges are probably even worse than current estimates.

In an attempt to find out exactly what the perils and benefits of big dams in the tropics can be, a French team from the National Center for Scientific Research has been studying the Nam Theun 2 reservoir in Laos − the largest in Southeast Asia − prior to its filling, in May 2008, right up to the present to calculate the total methane emissions…

With the help of a statistical model, day-to-day data related to atmospheric pressure and water level was used by the researchers to reconstruct emissions by ebullition over a continuous four-year period, from 2009 to 2013.

The results obtained highlight the importance of very frequent measurements of methane fluxes. They also show that the ebullition process − and therefore the amount of methane emitted from tropical reservoirs during their first years of operation − has most certainly been underestimated until now.

Just for the record, I’m not terribly worried about a 2˚ C increase in temperature given we’ve had no recent increases, it’s been much warmer before and the science is far from settled, but many of our readers and many natural gas supporters are, and I respect them.

If they’re correct and I’m wrong, that’s all the more reason to get things right with the data. Let the hyperventilating of fractivists come to end. Let’s recognize what’s being said in this piece about what constitutes more than half of all renewable electricity generation – hydroelectric power. It sounds remarkably similar to fractivist complaints made against natural gas except that the natural gas record is clearly improving year by year. Those who are serious about global warming as a threat need to think long and hard about that. There is no energy source that is free of impacts and risks – absolutely none. Some are better than others, to be sure, but natural gas is part of the solution, just like renewables.

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5 thoughts on “Global Warming Brought on by Hydroelectric Power?

  1. Tom, the science is not in a muddle. The reason for varying numbers on the impact of CH4 compared to CO2 is because the former breaks down faster. Depending on the time horizon one examines, the results are different.

    The average lifetime of a released CH4 atom in the atmosphere is 12 years. Because of these processes, its global warming potential is 34 times that of CO2 over 100 years but 86 times worse over 20 years. Since many view natural gas as a bridge fuel to a renewable future, I suggest the 20-year horizon is more appropriate. You may see things differently.

    It may also be useful for you to put the hydro issue into perspective. The article was about flooding tropical rain forests behind a dam. I can think of lots of reasons not to do that beyond the resulting methane emissions when that forest rots. Regardless, few hydroelectric dams are built that way. I think you will agree that Hoover and Glen Canyon dams did not inundate any tropical forests.

    Even in the tropical rain forest situation the effects can be mitigated by removing the trees and other vegetation. Like all industries, there are good and bad players.

  2. Actually Cliff I hit the wrong button and do not wholeheartedly agree with you. While you are correct that dams built in the tropics differ from ones built in an arid area, I would wager that some of the more vocal greenies indicate that they have been equally destructive. Hydropower has some negative impacts to the existing area. Are you willing to take good productive agricultural land out of use? Are the local residents willing to accept the fact that they will be losing their property and homes. Is the area one of concern for cultural resources? Will there be a significant impact to any endangered species?
    The point is that there are no panaceas and people have to come to terms with that.

    • CE, I would never expect wholehearted agreement around here. Regarding your “greenies” you need to realize that a lot of the squawking comes from those wanting to re-establish open rivers and historic fish migration paths. Let’s just say some hyperbole has crept into their arguments.

      It’s hard to do anything without some negative impacts, so the best we can hope for is having some net good. One has to balance the negatives such as lost farm land and displaced communities with the benefit of sustainable energy with reduced emissions.

      But the irony here is Tom throwing stones from his glass house. He faults hydro for methane from rotting vegetation but chooses to ignore the impacts of fugitive emissions from natural gas production. And your mention of lost farmland due to hydro is similarly ironic when one considers the impact of Marcellus Shale development has had on forests and agriculture.

  3. I think Cliff what is shown here is the entire methane leakage angle needs to be balanced in a net gain vs the impacts as you have said . It is very much like the display in Manhattan for the greenies marching – 500 diesel highway buses used to gather mindless kids who think switching to total renewables is as easy as buying an iPhone 6 . How about the future they get to use 500 natural gas powered buses which are going to come thanks to shale gas fracking !!!!! One in every three new city buses being made in america is now compressed natural gas ones .better to burn a fuel with one carbon atom then 11 to 13 carbon atoms per molecule . By the way with hydro projects in the tropics there are is one that is going to dwarf three grouges in the Congo . Can we be so smug to say to the developing world don’t do what we did . The Africans would say OK would you preferr terawatts of coal for plants instead. We have plenty of coal too

  4. Pingback: Global Warming Brought on by Hydroelectric Power? | ShaleNOW

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