Impacts from hydropower production on biodiversity in an LCA framework—review and recommendations

Abstract

Purpose

Expanding renewable energy production is widely accepted as a promising strategy in climate change mitigation. However, even renewable energy production has some environmental impacts, some of which are not (yet) covered in life cycle impact assessment (LCIA). We aim to identify the most important cause-effect pathways related to hydropower production on biodiversity, as one of the most common renewable energy sources, and to provide recommendations for future characterization factor (CF) development.

Methods

We start with a comprehensive review of cause-effect chains related to hydropower production for both aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity. Next, we explore contemporary coverage of impacts on biodiversity from hydropower production in LCA. Further, we select cause-effect pathways displaying some degree of consistency with existing LCA frameworks for method development recommendations. For this, we compare and contrast different hydrologic models and discuss how existing LCIA methodologies might be modified or combined to improve the assessment of biodiversity impacts from hydropower production.

Results and discussion

Hydropower impacts were categorized into three overarching impact pathways: (1) freshwater habitat alteration, (2) water quality degradation, and (3) land use change. Impacts included within these pathways are flow alteration, geomorphological alteration to habitats, changes in water quality, habitat fragmentation, and land use transformation. For the majority of these impacts, no operational methodology exists currently. Furthermore, the seasonal nature of river dynamics requires a level of temporal resolution currently beyond LCIA modeling capabilities. State-of-the-art LCIA methods covering biodiversity impacts exist for land use and impacts from consumptive water use that can potentially be adapted to cases involving hydropower production, while other impact pathways need novel development.

Conclusions

In the short term, coverage of biodiversity impacts from hydropower could be significantly improved by adding a time step representing seasonal ecological water demands to existing LCIA methods. In the long term, LCIA should focus on ecological response curves based on multiple hydrologic indices to capture the spatiotemporal aspects of river flow, by using models based on the “ecological limits to hydrologic alteration” (ELOHA) approach. This approach is based on hydrologic alteration-ecological response curves, including site-specific environmental impact data. Though data-intensive, ELOHA represents the potential to build a global impact assessment framework covering multiple ecological indicators from local impacts. Further, we recommend LCIA methods based on degree of regulation for geomorphologic alteration and a fragmentation index based on dam density for “freshwater habitat alteration,” which our review identified as significant unquantified threats to aquatic biodiversity.

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Acknowledgements

This work was funded by the Research Council of Norway through the EcoManage project (project number 215934) and the SURE project (project number 244109). The authors would like to thank Ottar Michelsen of NTNU and the EcoManage project leaders for support and guidance during the course of this publication, especially Atle Harby and Håkon Sundt.

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Correspondence to Francesca Verones.

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Gracey, E.O., Verones, F. Impacts from hydropower production on biodiversity in an LCA framework—review and recommendations. Int J Life Cycle Assess 21, 412–428 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-016-1039-3

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Keywords

  • Biodiversity
  • Ecosystem quality
  • Freshwater use
  • Hydropower
  • Life cycle impact assessment
  • Review