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Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Sep 3;47(17):9604-11. doi: 10.1021/es401820p. Epub 2013 Aug 23.

Addressing biogenic greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower in LCA.

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  • 1Industrial Ecology Programme and Department of Energy and Process Engineering, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) , 7491 Trondheim, Norway.


The ability of hydropower to contribute to climate change mitigation is sometimes questioned, citing emissions of methane and carbon dioxide resulting from the degradation of biogenic carbon in hydropower reservoirs. These emissions are, however, not always addressed in life cycle assessment, leading to a bias in technology comparisons, and often misunderstood. The objective of this paper is to review and analyze the generation of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs for the purpose of technology assessment, relating established emission measurements to power generation. A literature review, data collection, and statistical analysis of methane and CO2 emissions are conducted. In a sample of 82 measurements, methane emissions per kWh hydropower generated are log-normally distributed, ranging from micrograms to 10s of kg. A multivariate regression analysis shows that the reservoir area per kWh electricity is the most important explanatory variable. Methane emissions flux per reservoir area are correlated with the natural net primary production of the area, the age of the power plant, and the inclusion of bubbling emissions in the measurement. Even together, these factors fail to explain most of the variation in the methane flux. The global average emissions from hydropower are estimated to be 85 gCO2/kWh and 3 gCH4/kWh, with a multiplicative uncertainty factor of 2. GHG emissions from hydropower can be largely avoided by ceasing to build hydropower plants with high land use per unit of electricity generated.

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