High-resolution assessment of global technical and economic hydropower potential

  • Nature Energyvolume 2pages821828 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41560-017-0006-y
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Hydropower is the most important renewable energy source to date, providing over 72% of all renewable electricity globally. Yet, only limited information is available on the global potential supply of hydropower and the associated costs. Here we provide a high-resolution assessment of the technical and economic potential of hydropower at a near-global scale. Using 15”×15” discharge and 3”×3” digital elevation maps, we built virtual hydropower installations at >3.8 million sites across the globe and calculated their potential using cost optimization methods. This way we identified over 60,000 suitable sites, which together represent a remaining global potential of 9.49 PWh yr−1 below US$0.50 kWh−1. The largest remaining potential is found in Asia Pacific (39%), South America (25%) and Africa (24%), of which a large part can be produced at low cost (<US$0.10 kWh−1). In an ecological scenario, this potential is reduced to 5.67 PWh yr−1.

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C. Ettema is acknowledged for editing part of the manuscript. Moreover, the study benefitted from FP7/2007-2013 financial support under grant agreement number 308329 (ADVANCE).

Author information


  1. PBL - Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Bezuidenhoutseweg 30, 2594 AV, Den Haag, The Netherlands

    • David E. H. J. Gernaat
    • , Detlef P. van Vuuren
    • , Hester Biemans
    •  & Robin Niessink
  2. Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Heidelberglaan 2, 3584 CS, Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • David E. H. J. Gernaat
    • , Patrick W. Bogaart
    • , Detlef P. van Vuuren
    •  & Robin Niessink
  3. Wageningen Environmental Research (Alterra), PO Box 47, 6700 AA, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Hester Biemans


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D.E.H.J.G. and P.W.B. conceived the idea and developed the modelling techniques. D.P.v.V. assisted in refining the idea and manuscript. H.B. provided climate input data and R.N. assisted in preparatory analyses. D.E.H.J.G. drafted the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David E. H. J. Gernaat.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Tables 1–5, Supplementary Figures 1–3 and Supplementary References