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From conventional to renewable: The discursive politics of hydropower’s “renewability” in the current energy transition

Authors: Tyler Harlan*, Loyola Marymount University
Topics: Energy, Environment, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Hydropower, renewable energy, low-carbon, energy transition
Session Type: Lightning Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Throughout much of the 20th century, governments promoted hydropower as conventional energy that would drive modernization and national development. Today, however, hydropower is more likely to be framed as a renewable energy that is central to a low-carbon future. This paper examines this discursive shift and its material effects. Drawing on Behrsin’s (2019) concept of “rendering renewable,” I identify three arguments used by proponents to bolster hydropower’s renewability: 1) that it is the cheapest and most efficient alternative to fossil fuels; 2) that it can regulate other renewable energy sources in the grid network; and 3) that even if large hydropower cannot be considered renewable, “small” hydropower should be. I analyze how these arguments are employed through renewable energy policies and regulations in global, national and subnational contexts, with specific reference to China and the United States. I then show how such policies are driving a current boom in both small and large hydropower construction, with implications for river-dependent communities and environments. This paper thus contributes to burgeoning scholarship on “critical renewabilities” by highlighting the deep-seated political processes and power relations that shape what counts as renewable.

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