With the debate on the feasibility, expediency and necessity of the further development of hydropower now a regular concomitant of conservation approval processes, the Office of the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman has prepared the following assessment with facts and figures relating to power generation and consumption and the current status of hydroelectric development and its ecological consequences for the Tyrol.
In the assessment the generation of renewable hydroelectricity is presented in the form of normalised production, i.e. on the basis of mean annual generation of existing hydropower plants. This makes it possible to offer a meaningful picture over the years and to identify the underlying trends behind the significant annual fluctuations in generation caused by variations in annual inflows.
Storage losses in pumped storage power plants, i.e. the energy lost pumping the water up into the reservoir and the subsequent generation of electricity with corresponding efficiency losses, are included as internal consumption for power generation.
The charts, tables and maps have been prepared on the basis of publicly available data (sources: Statistik Austria, Land Tirol).
Last update: December 2020
In the Tyrol 6,991.4 GWh (gigawatt hours) of renewable electricity were produced in 2019. Around 95.5 percent of the total was generated by hydropower. Only a small proportion was produced through the combustion of biogenic materials, while electricity generation using photovoltaics accounted for just 1.55 percent.
Hydroelectricity from micro, small, medium and large power plants
In the case of hydropower generation in the Tyrol, 24 large power plants generate 73.02 percent of the annual total, while 778 micro power plants (generating capacity up to 500 kW) account for only 3.7 percent.
In the view of the Office of the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman, the usefulness of micro generating facilities is limited primarily to stand-alone solutions for supplying mountain refuges and buildings on the alpine pastures. The further promotion of hydroelectric development based on small plants with grid feed-in, especially those with a capacity of less than 500 kW, is not meaningful in terms of the economics of power generation or the goal of achieving the set climate targets.
Electricity consumption in the Tyrol amounted to 6,329.2 gigawatt hours (GWh) in 2019. The biggest consumers were trade and industry (2,255.4 GWh), with private households consuming a total of 1,729.1 GWh of electricity.
In that year the Tyrol thus had a net electricity production surplus of 662.2 GWh.
[With this surplus, in addition to the 328,300 Tyrolean households already supplied and the other uses of electricity (trade and industry, transport, the service sector, agriculture, internal consumption for power generation, grid losses), 148,809 additional households could be supplied or 252,748 electric cars operated all year round(20 kWh per 100 km at an average of 13,100 km annual vehicle kilometres – sources: VCÖ and ADAC).]
Power generation versus consumption
Is this surplus for 2019 (table) just a one-off event or has the Tyrol long been autonomous in relation to electricity?
Consideration of a longer period, namely from 2005 to 2019, reveals a constant production surplus from the year 2008 onwards.
The Tyrol’s official climate target, i.e. electricity autonomy based on renewables by 2030 at the latest, has therefore already been (more than) met and is reported accordingly by the Austrian National Statistics Office (cf. Statistik Austria, Energiebilanz_tirol_1988_bis_2019_Detailinformation.xlsx, sheet “Erneuerbare EU-Richtlinie”, line 63).
In recent years, the Tyrol has thus produced significantly more renewable electricity than it has consumed. This reflects two trends: First, real electricity consumption declined after 2008 and only increased significantly again in 2017, and second, there has been a clear upturn in mean annual generation, particularly as a result of the refurbishment and upgrade of the Tyrol’s hydropower facilities.
The increase in renewable power generation from 2005 to 2019 amounted to about 950 GWh/a. Since electricity generation from hydropower is the major contributor to this development (electricity from photovoltaics currently accounts for only 1.55 percent of total renewable generation), it can be said that the development of hydropower has been successful over the last two decades (and is currently continuing).
Over the same period, consumption by Tyrolean households increased from 1,599.2 GWh in 2005 to 1,729.1 GWh in 2019. In the case of the largest consumer of electricity, namely trade and industry, consumption remained relatively constant at 2,193.1 GWh in 2005 and 2,255.4 GWh in 2019.
With reference to renewable power production and consumption in the Tyrol as reflected in the current official data, the Office of the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman therefore sees no absolute necessity for the further development of hydropower in the Tyrol. On the contrary, both short- and long-term climate targets for the Tyrol and related EU-wide benchmarks have already been more than met.
Moreover, the further development of pumped storage power plants in the Tyrol, in combination with correspondingly significant imports of electricity from non-renewable sources, could in fact result in a failure to achieve the specified and self-imposed targets.
How many stretches of watercourses in the Tyrol are still available for hydropower development without significantly compromising the quality of life for future generations?
Ecological and landscape-aesthetic qualities of the Tyrol’s watercourses
The network of watercourses in the Tyrol with catchments of more than 10 km2 has a total length of 3,963 km. Almost one third of this network (1,213 km), mainly in the remote mountain valleys, has a very good ecological status. About a quarter (1,030 km) is classified as having good ecological status. However, 43 percent (1,720 km) of the major watercourses are so degraded in terms of their ecology due to power plants and other man-made structures that a statutory obligation to rehabilitate them applies.
A total of 32 percent (1,265 km) of the larger watercourses in the Tyrol are located in protected zones, i.e. they originate in Tyrolean conservation areas, and the stretch of the watercourse has a natural or near-natural character. 1.1 percent of the watercourse network is classified as unique, and the rating “very rare” applies to around 6.2 percent of the stretches of watercourses according to investigations performed by Land Tyrol.
Impounding, surge wave and minimum flow impacts and significant morphological impairments to watercourses in the Tyrol
The map only indicates those stretches of watercourses which, in the view of the Office of the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman, are affected by impacts that must be considered significant in terms of their nature and magnitude.
In the Tyrol, a total of 960 hydropower plants are listed in the Water Register as of January 2019. The number of weirs is significantly higher, as numerous plants have several intakes.
Stretches of watercourses are marked as being seriously impaired if they are impounded by power plants, have significant hydropeaking due to storage power plants or minimum streamflow due to diversion structures, are classified as heavily modified water bodies, or have poor or worse ecological status due to hydroengineering works.
Conclusions drawn by the Office of the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman
There are only very few major stretches of watercourses in the Tyrol that are not significantly impacted by power generation, namely the upper reaches of the Ötztaler Ache and the River Lech, the Isel, most of the catchment of the Brandenberger Ache, the Grossache and the Tyrolean section of the Leutascher Ache, and the Isar.
If a map of these watercourses is overlaid with ecological categories such as watercourse protection zones, very good ecological status, unique and very rare watercourses, it quickly becomes clear that – without significant ecological impacts – they offer little scope for new hydropower development schemes. The designation of the Lech and Isel as protected water bodies, the free-flowing section of the Inn, and the revitalisation measures already taken show that Land Tirol has recognised the dangers and is seeking to counteract the loss of attractive aquatic habitats.
In the view of the Office of the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman, the rehabilitation or ecologically responsible upgrade of existing plants (e.g. Finsingbach PP upgrade, Bruckhäusl PP upgrade, Mühlen PP upgrade on the River Sill, Kirchbichl PP upgrade and rehabilitation, etc.) or a few new, ecologically sustainable hydropower schemes on watercourses that are already compromised (e.g. the Stanzertal power plant on the Rosanna) are clearly preferable to new power plant construction projects on what are still natural or near-natural sites.
This applies all the more if we aspire to pass on to future generations a few watercourses that are in as close to a natural state as possible.
Positions and recommendations
Based on the facts and data available on power generation and power consumption, on the ecological aspects and the existing deficits of our watercourses, the Office of the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman has formulated the following positions and recommendations (exception: mini power plants as stand-alone solutions for mountain refuges, etc.):
New intakes for power plants only outside the water protection zones of the Tyrolean conservation areas.
New intakes only on those stretches of watercourses with a very good status where there will be no deterioration in individual quality parameters (e.g. water balance, fish, etc.).
Preservation of all free-flowing sections that are unique, particularly rare or of Austria-wide importance from a nature conservation point of view.
New hydropower plants only on streams with an average winter discharge of more than 50 litres per second.
Maintenance of fish passage for native species on major watercourses.
Protective measures for Natura 2000 habitats and species to ensure that they are not significantly impaired.
New power plant approval processes only following a prior positive review on the basis of the “Hydropower in the Tyrol” criteria.
No utilisation of additional natural or near-natural riverine landscapes for the inefficient production of hydrogen, methane or other synthetic fuels.
Legislation to establish water protection zones where power plant construction is banned.
Involvement of all stakeholders in the run-up to the approval processes.