Water-energy-ecosystem nexus in small run-of-river hydropower: Optimal design and policy

S. Basso*, G. Lazzaro, M. Bovo, C. Soulsby, G. Botter

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


Small run-of-river hydropower may significantly contribute towards meeting global renewable energy targets. However, exploitation of river flows for energy production triggers environmental impacts and conflicts among stakeholders, thereby requiring optimal water resources allocation strategies. The variety of interests at stake demands instruments to quantitatively assess manifold effects of water management choices. In this work, analytic tools to guide design of run-of-river power plants when incommensurable objectives must be jointly maximized are presented. The approach is grounded on the concept of Paretian efficiency and applied to a hypothetical case study in Scotland, where energy production could compete with regionally relevant ecosystem services. We found that a multi-objective design complying with predefined environmental regulation entails significant economic losses without safeguarding ecological functions. Conversely, if the environmental flow is regarded as a decision variable subject to minimum lawful values, economically appealing and ecologically effective plant configurations emerge. Our findings suggest the existence of broadly valid alternative strategies for designing small run-of-river hydropower while preserving ecological functions, associated to small or large plant capacities. Local hydrologic conditions and target ecosystem services determine the most effective strategy for specific case studies. The analysis indicates that larger power plants are sometimes the most effective way to preserve ecosystems services through economically viable projects. Therefore, renewable energy policy should avoid incentive schemes that penalize a priori larger installations. The approach offers an objective basis to identify effective hydropower design, management and policies when additional ecosystems services are considered, thus supporting a sustainable intensification of run-of-river energy production.

Original languageEnglish
Article number115936
Number of pages12
JournalApplied Energy
Early online date6 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. Support from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ is gratefully acknowledged.


  • Ecosystem services
  • Incentive policy
  • Optimal design
  • Small run-of-river hydropower
  • Water-energy-ecosystem nexus


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