Global hydropower: trend and unexpressed potential

The installed capacity of hydropower worldwide reached 1.39 million MW in 2022. But what is the actual global hydropower trend in recent years? Can the untapped potential be quantified?

global hydropower trend

by Frosio Next 

April 2024

Global growth trends

According to the latest report from the International Hydropower Association (IHA), global hydropower capacity grew to its highest level since 2015 last year, reaching nearly 34,000 MW. The total installed capacity of hydropower worldwide reached 1.39 million MW. Despite these seemingly encouraging numbers, the significant efforts made globally by both the public and private sectors in recent years to transition to a more sustainable energy mix are still not in line with the roadmap for global zero-emission goals.

The increases in 2022 compared to the previous year are substantial and positive (see numbers in the image below), but to achieve a zero-emission economy, according to projections by the International Energy Agency (IEA), hydropower should grow at an average rate of approximately 46 GW per year. However, the current rate of development falls significantly below these levels. Between 2016 and 2021, hydropower grew at an average rate of 22 GW, only half of the required target. Furthermore, this rate was lower than the one recorded in the previous five years (2011-2016), which saw an annual average capacity addition of about 34 GW.

Incrementi idroelettrico globale 2022

Source: IHA2023_WHO_report_04

Top countries for installed capacity in 2022

In the past year, the most significant growth in hydropower capacity occurred in East Asia and the Pacific. Thanks to 24,944 MW of new capacity additions, the total installed capacity in the region increased to 548,000 MW. China continues to lead the way, with nearly 24 GW of new capacity coming online in 2022, including the latest units from the massive 16 GW Baihetan project (16 hydropower units!). China’s new capacity included over 8 GW of pumped hydro facilities, reflecting its ambitious plans for this category of plants, which could see up to 270 GW of capacity by 2030. In the region, only Laos (with over 1 GW of new capacity) represented an alternative to China’s dominance in terms of annual new installed capacity.




In Central and South Asia, nearly 2 GW of new capacity has been installed, including large projects in Pakistan (Karot, 720 MW) and India (Bajoli Holi, 180 MW), with many large-scale projects nearing completion and set to be operational in the 2024/25 timeframe. In a further positive development, the Indian government recently released guidelines for hydro-pumping projects, recognizing their importance in providing grid services and support as the Indian grid increasingly accommodates growing numbers of variable renewable energy sources (wind and solar).

One of the most unexpected developments in 2022 was the significant increase in hydropower capacity in Europe. Europe added 2,712 MW of new installed capacity, with 1,780 MW coming from pumped hydro projects. The total installed hydropower capacity in Europe reached 258,000 MW (Portugal with 998 MW and Switzerland with 900 MW led the 2022 expansion in capacity).


In North and Central America, the installed capacity reached 1.14 million MW, with 1,011 MW of new installations. Both North and South America saw an increase of over 1 GW of new capacity in 2022, with significant increases in Canada (over 1 GW), Colombia (618 MW), and Chile (477 MW) thanks to various large new power plants. In North America, positive contributions were noted from governments (in the United States with the Inflation Reduction Act and in Canada, where the 2023 budget will incentivize hydropower development through innovative tax credit schemes).

top paesi idroelettrico 2022

In Africa, the total capacity was 40,000 MW, with capacity additions of 1,860 MW. Countries in South and Central Asia added 1,940 MW of new capacity in 2022. The total installed capacity in the region reached 164,000 MW. Steady progress continues, with just under 2 GW added in 2022, including a series of large projects over 50 MW (in Ethiopia, Guinea, and Zambia) and smaller projects (including in Madagascar, Uganda, and Rwanda) commissioned with the support of both private and public investments. Although much work remains to be done to increase hydropower in Africa, significant projects are planned for the coming year in Angola (Caculo Cabaça, 2 GW) and in Cameroon (Nachtigal, 420 MW), which will aid the continent in its transition to clean energy.



Future prospects per region

China will continue to grow in perspective, acting as a driving force for the entire region (most of the developments and new plant constructions are expected in Asia, with over 570 GW of additional capacity required), even though growth has slowed as major projects (such as Three Gorges and Xiluodu) have been completed.

The Middle East and Latin America will also play crucial roles, bringing online over 200 GW of new hydropower projects each.

The challenge is even more evident and ambitious in Europe and North America, where the focus is not so much on building new plants but on flexibility to stabilize the grid and ensure production at any time. Currently, the level of new hydropower plant development in these regions is well below the requirements for the zero-emission goal. The greatest disparity in terms of growth rate is observed in the African continent, where there is a need to unlock a vast hydropower potential to support electrification and limit new CO2 emissions.

The IHA’s analysis shows that there is more than enough hydropower potential to meet the net-zero emissions goals set by the IEA and IRENA for 2050. Furthermore, about half of the economically feasible hydropower potential remains untapped. This potential can be realized through four main actions: the development of new hydropower plants, the expansion of pumped hydro facilities, the modernization of existing infrastructure, and the conversion of unused dams into hydropower plants.

So, there is significant potential for the development of new hydropower plants globally, but the question arises: where are the most significant opportunities? The Hydropower 2050 report published by the IHA in 2021 identified the remaining global and regional hydropower potential. The results are shown in the table on the right: the chart combines current installed capacity, projected growth, and indicative potential.

potenziale inespresso idroelettrico

Source: IHA2023_WHO_report_04

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