It is now easier to access reliable data on small hydropower projects globally following the launch of a website designed to promote this technology, says a UN body.
The UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Center on Small Hydro Power (ICSHP), a China-based, non-profit body that promotes this form of energy worldwide, launched the site last month (13 February).
"The first step is to share knowledge so that decision-makers, stakeholders, investors and local communities can benefit and learn from our resource," says Liu Heng, the ICSHP's director-general.
Small hydropower plants - producing up to ten megawatts of power (almost enough to run a 20-carriage, high-speed train) - generate this energy from flowing water. Such plants offer the chance of energy independence to rural communities that are not connected to the electricity grid, says the website.
The new site includes a map based on three years of data gathering that has 20 regional overviews and 149 country reports.
Each report is designed to be small enough to download on a mobile phone, so poorer people without access to computers can get hold of it.
As small hydropower technology is flexible and plants are easy to build, operate and maintain locally, they can benefit rural regions, boosting industrial development in a socially inclusive way, says Liu.
"Rural electrification can mark a revolutionary change for local communities previously reliant on gasoline," he says.
Lara Jin Qiu-ting Esser, senior programme officer at ICSHP and one of the editors of the report, tells SciDev.Net that her organisation is "open to the idea" of including scientific research on small hydropower in future reports.
She also hopes to add case studies showing technical, social and environmental aspects of the technology, along with different financing mechanisms.
"If we can create an understanding that small hydropower is a renewable energy option and raise awareness of its potential at the national and regional level, then we can empower people to invest in its future," says Esser.
But some researchers urge caution, arguing that more assessment is needed of the likely environmental impacts if this energy source is widely used.
"There is sufficient evidence to negate the myth of small hydropower projects being clean," says S.A. Abbasi, director of the Centre for Pollution Control and Environmental Engineering at Pondicherry University, India.
He tells SciDev.Net that some environmental scientists are questioning the assumption that small hydroelectric plants are 'cleaner' than large ones, noting that the small ones can still disrupt animal movements, require access roads and otherwise affect habitats.
This type of consideration "should be included in any well-meaning and objective website", he adds.
Esser agrees that "before conducting any project, stakeholders should look at the environmental impact, as this is part of a feasibility study".
But Sanjay Kumar Sharma, manager at the Regional Center of Excellence in Micro Hydro, Nepal, argues that - in case of failure - having a number of small hydropower plants offers greater security in electricity supply than one large plant. Small hydropower fosters "inclusive and sustainable" small and medium-scale rural industries, he says.