Small hydropower plants have long supported remote Alps communities, but there is growing concern about their environmental impact.
Waterfalls surround the Furtalm, an idyllic mountain farm in South Tyrol in the northern Italian Alps. Their rushing sound, combined with the bells of a small herd of grazing cows, fills the air. Hikers eat hearty meals of homemade cheese dumplings and apple strudel at long tables outside a tiny farm kitchen. After a strenuous hike, I order a plate of dumplings and gaze out over a nearby stream. Aside from being very attractive, the stream is also doing me a practical favor: it is assisting in the preparation of my lunch.
A tiny hydropower plant tucked away in the back of the farm generates enough electricity to power the milking machine by the stable, the fridge in the dairy where the cheese is made, and all the kitchen appliances used to make my dumplings.
“Electricity has always been free in this area.
You don’t have an electricity counter when it’s right next to your door “Alexandra Larch, who runs the farm and restaurant with her family in the summer and spends the winters in the valley, agrees. Her parents own a much smaller hydroelectric plant next to their mountain farm: It’s so small that they have to turn off everything else in the house before turning on the milking machine. I can hear a faint clanging sound in the distance as I eat my delicious dumplings. It was found on the site of another hydro plant being built by a local cooperative.
South Tyrol and its Alpine neighbours are known as Europe’s hydro powerhouses, owing to their large plants that dot the landscape with valley-spanning reservoirs and massive pipes. In South Tyrol, hydropower generates more than 7,300 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year, accounting for roughly 90% of total electricity production and exporting roughly half of it to other Italian regions during the summer months.
Only 30 large plants produce more than 80% of the hydropower output.
However, another aspect of Alpine energy supply has gained prominence in recent years: hundreds of small hydropower plants, many of which are rooted in traditional cultures of self-sufficiency and self-determination.
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There are about 1,000 hydropower plants in South Tyrol, and the vast majority of them are small or medium-sized – ranging from tiny ones that power a single farm to clusters of larger ones that cover an entire valley’s supply. Most are run-of-river diversion plants, which divert a portion of the stream, typically via small dams or weirs, through a pipe to a turbine. (While there is no universal definition of small hydro, and the upper limit varies greatly between countries, international reports generally define it as up to 10 megawatts installed capacity.) Small in South Tyrol typically means up to 220 kW of capacity, and medium, up to 3 MW). The picture is similar elsewhere in the Alps, with a plethora of small or medium-sized plants allowing individual farms or villages to be self-sufficient while typically contributing only 10% or so to national hydropower production.
Small hydro supporters portray it as a relatively low-impact energy source with global potential. As energy prices soar and fears of blackouts grow, as does the need to find alternatives to coal, gas, and oil, the prospect of a robust, renewable local energy source may sound very appealing. However, critics argue that the ecological cost of small plants may be higher than previously thought, and that their benefits must be carefully balanced against their costs.
In November, a few months after my summer hike, I contact the Pflersch energy cooperative, which is behind the new power plant being built near the Furtalm in the lovely Pflersch Valley. Franz Schwitzer, the cooperative’s managing director, chuckles as he tells me that he is getting a lot of media requests these days: with the world in the grip of an energy crisis, his resilient cooperative is attracting attention.
In the valley, the cooperative owns four small-to-medium-sized hydro plants, the largest of which has an installed capacity of about 3 megawatts, as well as the one under construction. Its approximately 300 members, who include farmers, villagers, small businesses, and small hotels, pay only 3.1 euro cents (3.2 US cents/2.7p) per kilowatt-hour (10 euro cents/10 US cents/8.7p including taxes) for a monthly consumption of 1,250kWh. (At the time of publication, the market price in Italy for a typical household, including taxes, was 66 euro cents (69 US cents/57p). Non-members are also served by the cooperative at market rates, such as large hotels and a ski lift. For the majority of the year, the hydro power it generates is sufficient to power the Pflersch.
“If the Italian grid were to fail, we would be fine for nine months of the year – spring, summer, and autumn – assuming normal weather. We’d simply set our network to ‘isolated operation’ [for self-consumption] mode “Schwitzer claims During the winter, the cooperative buys additional energy from the market. It would be self-sufficient all year if it could store the energy from the warmer months. The community-centered model is not uncommon in the region, where small businesses and cooperatives are seen as contributing to the energy sector’s diversity and resilience. According to Thomas Senoner, director of South Tyrol’s public agency for the sustainable use of water resources, a component of the region’s energy policy is to support rural life in the mountains, including traditional farming.
Such self-sufficiency may appear to be the ultimate luxury to people whose lives are currently blighted by soaring energy prices. However, as Schwitzer points out, the cooperatives in South Tyrol arose out of necessity and extreme marginalisation.
In the early twentieth century, the traditionally German-speaking region was ruled by Italy. Some local families have heartbreaking memories of when the central Italian government built large hydropower plants in their pristine valleys, flooding historical villages and centuries-old farms, in order to provide energy for Italian factories rather than remote Alpine communities. South Tyrol is still a part of Italy, but it is an autonomous province with its own energy resources.
“Because we were on the outskirts, the cooperatives were born out of a disadvantage. We would never have received electricity from the main grid in the 1950s “Schwitzer claims “So the people decided to do it themselves, constructing their own power plant. They were daring pioneers who used their own money as collateral to obtain credit and pay for the turbines. And what was once a disadvantage has now become a benefit.”
His cooperative has a particularly long history: it was founded nearly 100 years ago by a local priest and three farmers in the hamlet of Boden. In an awestruck tone, the priest recorded the event in his church chronicle: “November 14, 1923 Boden was illuminated by electric light for the first time at 14.30 in the afternoon.”