REPower EU hydropower loopholes must be closed to prevent a new hydropower boom in CEE countries

A clear sign of political opportunism and industry lobby, a wave of small hydropower plants in Romania is back on the public agenda justified by the government coalition as a way to meet the new REPower EU targets for the deployment of renewable energy. This ignores the dropping energy generation from hydropower due to climate change and the negative environmental impact of this technology. However, the European Parliament and Council have not yet finished negotiations on REPowerEU and it is in their power to give clear preference to more future-oriented renewable energy types.

The REPower EU proposal1 aims to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy sources in EU countries through a combination of measures including energy savings, diversification of gas supply, accelerating permitting procedures for renewables and the designation of go-to areas for their deployment nationally. 

While some pieces of the REPower package follow a clear strategy and risk mitigation approach, the proposed amendments for the Renewable Energy Directive2 foresee the designation of ‘go-to areas’  for biomass combustion plants and for new hydropower plants. This could result in more Member States, including in CEE countries, opting for such types of projects as a result of industry lobby rather than their ability to sustainably deliver the needed amounts of renewable energy by 2030.

Hydropower and forest biomass projects are not the solution for meeting 2030 RES targets

Building new hydropower plants is neither a technological nor a political solution for accelerated shift to renewable energy production in Central and Eastern European countries where the key obstacles to progress are aging energy infrastructure and a slow rate of wind and solar deployment in recent years. In the face of rising climate change impacts, hydropower production has shown sharp drops in many countries over the summer of 2022. 

With respect to biomass, CEE countries already have very high shares of final energy production from forest biomass, accounting for almost half of the heating energy in Bulgaria and Romania. Given the remaining loopholes in the EU climate legislation that allows for primary forest biomass to be burned and counted as renewables, further incentivising this form of energy can lead to an intensification of harvesting and pressure on natural forest habitats3.

NGO-led scenarios4 modeling the possible pathways for decarnisation at the national level foresee no future role for hydropower and forest biomass in national or EU level decarbonisation, while there is a need for consistent deployment of less environmentally impactful technologies such as onshore and offshore wind, solar PVs, accompanied in CEE countries by a more efficient use of forest biomass at the household level. At the same time, refurbishing functional large hydropower installations to be more efficient while also improving ecological conditions such as the ecological flow should also be prioritized by governments and investors, according to NGOs. At the same time, governments in CEE ought to improve the efficiency of forest biomass use, especially at the household level where few safeguards exist.

Romania digs out old problematic hydropower projects 

With EU decision making still ongoing, statements from Romanian high level officials, including head of Chamber of Deputies Ciolacu, since August talk about the need and opportunity to already amend the recently concluded Romanian National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP) to include unfinished HPP projects in order to “meet REPower EU targets”, an approach which is procedurally and technically wrong. The prime minister himself talks about 11 such hydropower projects, most of which are older unfinished projects that pose not only climate and biodiversity  but also legal concerns. Such is the case for the Jiu Hydropower Plant against which a court rulingexists.

Need for transparency in RES deployment and more ambition from EU

The development of the REPower EU chapters of the NRRPs ought to follow a transparent and participatory process of project selection in order to avoid siphoning of EU funds meant for deep sector reforms to incumbent and businesses interest groups, such as the hydropower industry. At the same time, projects should be aligned with the 'Do no significant harm principle6' which has guided the developments of the NRRPs in past years. 

So far it seems that the European Commission has done little to prevent such opportunistic moves as the one observed in Romania, while just finalized negotiations inside the Environmental Committee of the European Parliament7 have failed to remove any of the loopholes from the REPower EU amendments to the Renewable Energy Directive including the eligibility of hydropower plants under go-to areas. 

Chances still remain that more ambitious amendments will be drawn in the future EU Energy Council meeting. As such, it is crucial that Member States distinguish between hydropower and biomass and other sources of renewable energy, in light of the climate and biodiversity concerns that the former raise.


More information:
  3. See JRC report findings on The use of woody biomass for energy production in the EU:
  4.  Such scenarios exist for instance for Bulgaria and Hungary
  5.  In 2017 the Romanian Appeal court annulled the construction permits for the HPP in the absence of needed environmental impact studies