First ever assessment of climate change influence on India’s hydropower plants points to increased generation potential

First ever assessment of climate change influence on India’s hydropower plants points to increased generation potential

Will Bugler

Climate change will have a significant impact on India’s hydropower plants, according to a new study. Changes in rainfall patterns, snowmelt and streamflow in India’s major rivers however, will affect the design and operation of India’s planned and current hydro plants. Amazingly however, the role of climate change on hydroelectric facilities in the country remains largely unexplored.

India is the world’s 7th largest producer of hydropower, and the predictable, low-carbon energy source is vitally important for the country’s ambitions to improve energy supplies and cut greenhouse gas emissions. With India’s population continuing to grow, the demand for clean energy will rise in the coming years. Hydropower offers considerable potential to meet some of this demand. Estimates suggest that the country uses less than 20 % of its total hydropower potential.

Dams must be built to last

As with other large infrastructure developments, proper consideration of climate change on hydroelectric facilities is essential. The lifespan of a large, concrete dam can extend to well over 100 years. A hydropower dam built today will be operational in a considerably different climate in its later life.

The study, undertaken by researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, provides the first-ever assessment of climate change impacts on the hydropower potential of 7 large hydropower projects in India. Each facility has an installed capacity of over 300 MW, and most are among the top 10 largest hydropower projects in the country.

The study found that all 7 reservoirs studied are projected to experience greater levels of overall rainfall by the end of the century, with some being up to 18% wetter than today. However, the increase in rainfall will not be evenly spread throughout the year. The authors expect that much of the increase will fall as heavy, monsoon rains. This means that the hydro-electric dams may have to withstand more severe flood events than have been previously experienced. It also means that streamflow will not increase throughout the year, meaning that the increased rainfall is unlikely to be matched by a similar increase in electricity generation potential.

The study also found that snow cover is likely to decline affecting several catchments of hydroelectric facilities. This decline in snow cover will mean reduce its contribution to streamflow in the winter season.

Other factors affect streamflow

Overall, the study found that that there would be an increase in streamflow for the 7 hydropower facilities, and that with good planning, India could increase its overall generation from hydropower. Planners should take account of climate-driven changes in streamflow to best capitalise on these changes.

To do this, it will be important to consider other factors, notably the changing demand for irrigation. Increased irrigation demand can have a significant effect on streamflow and reduce hydropower production capacity. If rain falls over shorter periods of time and in more intense bursts, the demand for irrigation in the longer dry periods is likely to rise. This could offset some of the potential increase in generation.

Other factors such as changing land-use patterns will also have significant impacts on India’s hydropower production capacity. However, it is clear from this study that climate change will have significant influence on the streamflow that reaches each facility. As streamflow is highly localised, and dependent of many contributing factors relating to local geography, assessments should be carried out on all current and proposed hydropower plants to assess how they will operate under various climate scenarios.

The study Projected Increase in Hydropower Production in India under Climate Change can be found here.


Kumar, A., Kumar, K., Kaushik, N., Sharma, S. & Mishra, S. Renewable energy in India: Current status and future potentials. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 14, 2434–2442 (2010).

Cover photo by Thangaraj Kumaravel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0): Sharavathi hydroelectric power plant view.

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