Little water and snow, fears of a bad new year for hydroelectric power

The mild winter has reduced gas consumption, but risks leaving us without water and snow in spring and summer, limiting hydroelectric production. WATCH THE VIDEO

Next summer is likely to be a new nightmare for hydroelectric power generation. A problem not only for the managers of dams and plants, but also for end users who could pay for the lack of hydroelectric input in their bills.

Better than 2022, worse than usual

The data from the Permanent Observatory on water use in the Po district illustrate an alarming situation. It is true that today the artificial reservoirs are fuller – or less empty – than last year. In February there is 25 percent more water than in the same period of 2022. But the comparison is conditioned by the fact that last year was the most complicated ever for hydroelectric generation. According to Terna numbers, only 9.3 percent of electricity was generated by hydroelectric turbines, while in previous years it had never fallen below 14.

In fact, compared to the historical average, the reservoirs of the Po district – therefore the artificial lakes in Lombardy, Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta – are definitely in deficit. Water resources are 33 percent lower than in recent decades: almost 150 million cubic meters of water are missing. And we’ve only reached 31 percent of the maximum attainable level.

Fortunately, unlike the winter of 2021-2022, the snow has fallen in greater quantities on the Alpine arc, and this will provide an additional water reservoir over the next few months. But the uncertainty remains whether it will really be enough.

Terna: risk of secondments in 2023

In the meantime, Terna has sounded the alarm. Indeed, in its report on the adequacy of the Italian electricity system, it warned that “in periods of persistently high temperatures as well as an increase in the demand for energy” due to domestic cooling systems “it is probable that there will be a simultaneous reduction in the contribution the coverage of demand by hydroelectric generation” and thermoelectric generation from gas, which requires the supply of water for operation. And if this also happened in other neighboring countries from which we import electricity – such as France and Switzerland – we would run the risk of “detachment of the load concentrated in the northern and central-northern areas”. That is to say cutting off the electricity to some more energy-intensive companies, to avoid generalized blackouts.

What we have already risked in the summer of 2022: Terna itself recalls that on 25, 26 and 27 July “there was an extremely reduced margin of adequacy which, in the absence of a contribution from neighboring countries, would was negative; it was therefore necessary for Terna to implement a series of emergency measures”. Precisely what we risk again this year.

The consequences of drought

If indeed the hydroelectric turbines were to enter a crisis again, the entire national energy system would suffer. Indeed, it would be necessary to increase the use of gas and coal-fired thermoelectric plants (the use of which has already been extended) to make up for the shortage. With an impact primarily on the climate, but also on Italian bills and the risk of a methane shortage next winter.

If today the system appears perfectly balanced, if gas consumption in the thermoelectric sector were to grow again after the decline in 2022, Italy could miss the goal of filling storage to at least 90 percent by the autumn. And risk a winter in the cold.