Major contractors for large dam projects have been criticised for their part in ‘controversial’ projects. Although companies cannot directly affect decisions on dam construction, ABB believes there are ways to minimise the negative environmental impacts of large dams. Suzanne Moxon spoke to Michael Robertson from ABB’s environmental affairs department
Large dams continue to make headlines, as ABB declared in its Environmental management report 1997. Just a few days after publication of this document, which details the role of hydro power in the company’s agenda, ABB made news itself, as the target of a report which attacked its role in the hydro power industry and questioned its environmental integrity.
High risk–low return, published by the Berne Declaration with support from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and Greenpeace Switzerland, criticises ABB’s involvement in what it calls ‘controversial projects such as Bakun, Three Gorges and Maheshwar’. It says that ABB should reconsider its involvement in hydro power, and should shift its focus to other renewable energies.
The World Commission on Dams was formed in 1997 in recognition of such criticism (see article, p32) and ABB president and CEO Göran Lindahl has been chosen as a member. ABB said: ‘Whilst we have taken note of the recent critical report on our hydro power strategy by the Berne Declaration, we believe it is in the best interest of every stakeholder to debate all views within the Commission itself, rather than distract attention to separate discussion on the sidelines.’ However, ABB’s Michael Robertson spoke to IWP&DC about the company’s environmental management report.
IWP&DC: ABB says that hydro should ‘remain on the menu’, although it has no commercial interest in promoting it over other forms of power. Why is this so? MR: Hydro power offers the highest efficiency (over 90%) of any type of power plant and accounts for almost 20% of the world’s installed generating capacity. For several countries it is almost the only source of power they possess (eg it provides over 90% of Brazil’s power). Furthermore hydro power is one of the two most significant CO2-free energy sources we have. Therefore, whatever our preferences or prejudices, hydro power just cannot be rejected.
In fact we must expect that the radical new direction taken by the UN Kyoto Summit meeting — where 140 nations agreed to reduce CO2 emissions — will lead to increased demands for eco-efficient technologies, particularly those that emit less greenhouse gases. Clean, renewable hydro power can make one of the largest and most immediate contributions towards this objective. And the total capacity to date of installed hydro plants worldwide is approximately 690GW — only a quarter of the world’s total viable potential for water power.
Furthermore, we believe that hydro power is a sustainable business solution. Sustainable development combines the goals of creating the right conditions to sustain the development of our societies without destroying the environment in which we live. It is not an either/or situation.
In developing countries, development and the struggle to eradicate poverty depend on access to reliable and economical electricity. An ‘unplugged’ society without electricity is unsustainable. Hydro power, in many countries, is the largest and most immediately available source of clean, renewable energy. It has great future potential.
IWP&DC: Does ABB believe hydro is an important renewable energy source? MR: As it contributes to 20% of the world’s sources for producing electricity, we believe hydro power is the number one renewable energy resource. In contrast, the so-called ‘new renewables’ presently account for less than 1% of the world’s electricity generating capacity.
IWP&DC: ABB has been involved in several large dam schemes where adverse publicity has highlighted negative environmental effects. Do you think such exposure has damaged ABB’s image? MR: No group has the representation to be the sole arbiter on our environmental image. We have many audiences and stakeholders with very wide representation who have an interest in ABB’s performance and activities. Only a small proportion of these have expressed negative views regarding our involvement in Bakun and Three Gorges, and these have been mainly expressed by groups in Sweden and Switzerland — two countries whose prosperity is due not least to abundant hydro power. Overall, for the rest of the world our image is intact and largely unaffected by our role in these projects which are judged to be beneficial to the wider communities they serve.
Whatever the views of our audiences on hydro power and our involvement in such projects, we seek to continuously improve our environmental image through internal environmental management programmes, the design of our products, our performance on projects and through our external efforts (such as the World Commission on Dams and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development).
We are also endeavouring through these activities to open up a dialogue with interested non-governmental organisations and others who might be critical of dam projects. The new World Commission on Dams is such an initiative where advocates and opponents will embark on a multi-stakeholder dialogue, to reach a consensus on the role of large dams in sustainable development, which all parties can support.
IWP&DC: ABB says that by its involvement it can ensure environmental standards are achieved. Are you really able to exert environmental influence? MR: With 132 of our own facilities already certified to the Environmental Management Standard ISO 14001, we believe we are one of the most environmentally conscious companies in our industry. Furthermore, the first power plant construction site in the world to be certified to ISO 14001 was an ABB site (South Humber Bank in the UK). We intended to achieve the same for Bakun, and to make compliance with this standard mandatory for all our suppliers and sub-contractors.
Since 1994, ABB has also been involved with stakeholders in prior consultation, dialogues and studies on the Environmental Impact Assessments of all the major hydro power projects we have worked on. This process also forms part of our risk assessment analysis to determine our bid/no bid decision.
We believe that our concerns and recommendations are seriously considered and we have confidence in our ability to maintain a mandatory environmental programme for the sites under our control. On leaving the site, we also offer customer training in environmental management to maintain the measures already adopted.
IWP&DC: Your environmental report says that ABB can enhance the positive environmental effect of large dam projects through the company’s technology. What does such technology encompass? MR: A key part of the company’s policy defines our objective of developing and supplying eco-efficient products and systems which incorporate full life cycle assessments with reduced environmental impact, that are safe in use and can be recycled, reused or disposed of safely. At the same time we strive to raise the efficiencies and reduce the losses of our products so that they consume less of the countries’ resources. Through higher efficiencies we can provide the same power from smaller plants.
IWP&DC: The resettlement of ‘dam-affected’ people is a highly contentious issue, and a focal point for opponents. Can ABB influence resettlement programmes in its projects, and is this an important consideration for ABB? MR: All issues relating to the resettlement of people affected by such schemes are clearly a matter for the local authorities and the national governments. However, ABB does what it can to ameliorate resettlement problems on projects where it has a major role. In the case of Bakun we visited the affected Longhouse people and had discussions with their representatives. For Three Gorges we will consider siting new factories in areas designated for the resettled people.
However, it is in forums such as the World Commission on Dams where progress can be expected on these issues through a dialogue with all interested parties. In welcoming his appointment as one of the 11 commissioners, ABB’s president Göran Lindahl particularly emphasised that the Commission’s work must ensure that the local people affected by these schemes will benefit.
IWP&DC: Do you believe the Commission will have a positive effect on the industry’s environmental image? MR: ABB puts great faith in the World Commission on Dams which, by working closely with both advocates and opponents of large dams, will seek to overcome the deadlock which has polarised this international debate. Furthermore, the appointment of ABB’s Göran Lindahl to the Commission is an indication of the company’s determination to play its role in helping to achieve a successful outcome.
Care for the environment is an ABB core policy and we look forward to working towards a consensus on the role of large dams in sustainable development. A positive outcome will include guidelines for environmental issues which can certainly help the industry to improve its image.