The Hill Op-ed: Hitting the Reset Button: Hydropower’s Pathway to Growth

The Hill

Will hydropower play a greater role in our clean energy future? With the release of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydropower Vision report, it is an important question that Congress should be asking.

Breaking long held misconceptions, the Energy Department’s report, a first-of-its-kind roadmap for future growth, hits the reset button on the current perception of hydropower in America. It found that hydropower’s capacity can sustainably increase by nearly 50 gigawatts by 2050 – more than doubling our nation’s energy storage and facilitating the growth of more wind and solar.

Hydropower isn’t tapped out – not by a longshot. It isn’t yesterday’s technology. And it can play a much larger role in reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.
For example, non-powered dams were identified as one pathway to growth. Ninety-seven percent of existing dams in the country are not equipped to generate power. In what can be described as a conservative analysis, the report states that we can add 4.8 gigawatts of capacity to the electric grid – enough to power nearly 5 million more homes and businesses.

Retrofitting existing dams is already making an impact. Forty-five miles southeast of Des Moines, Iowa, on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ existing Red Rock dam, Missouri River Energy Services is developing a new hydroelectric facility that will harness 36 megawatts of new electricity – enough to power 18,000 homes.

And in Ohio, American Municipal Power recently brought online the Meldahl Hydroelectric facility on the Ohio River with an estimated capacity of 105 MW, joining three other facilities that total 300 MW of new generation.

While the Energy Department’s report also calls for upgrading facilities and ramping up new stream-reach development, it hones in on hydropower’s core value – flexibility. Flexibility, along with other attributes such as load following and balancing grid frequency, may sound dull and overly technical. But these features help to keep the grid secure, while making sure that electricity is there when we need it.

Hydropower also facilitates the growth of other renewables like wind and solar. Pumped storage, which the report finds can grow by 36 gigawatts, enables greater integration of wind and solar into the grid by storing energy during times of low use, and utilizing that energy during peak demand or periods of diminished wind and solar usage.

Reaching 50 GW by 2050, however, isn’t an abstract concept. It has real-world implications. According to the Hydropower Vision report, we could reduce greenhouse gases and other emissions by 5.6 billion metric tons, support 195,000 jobs and avoid 30 trillion gallons of water use – the equivalent of 45 million Olympic-size pools.

50 by 2050 also means nearly 5 million fewer cases of acute respiratory symptoms, and over 300,000 fewer cases of childhood upper respiratory symptoms.

While the benefits are many, the report also puts the need to modernize hydropower’s licensing process into clearer focus. A substantial barrier to hydropower meeting its potential is the length and uncertainty in the licensing process, which makes it difficult for hydropower to attract investment.

Today, a natural gas plant can be permitted in as little as two years, while clean hydropower facilities can take up to ten years or more.

Under the status quo, the process lacks timely coordination between federal and state agencies, resulting in conflicting priorities and deferred decision-making that delays real environmental improvements and places projects in limbo for months or years at a time.

To address some of these concerns, Congress has made significant progress on the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012). The bill contains provisions that would make the licensing process more timely, more coherent, and more collaborative. Most importantly, they would neither repeal nor undercut the timely exercise of authority by any state or federal resource agency to administer the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, or any other federal environmental law.

Now, all that stands in the way of the bill becoming law is an agreement by the Energy Conference Committee in Congress to a modified bill and the President’s signature.

In the end, the Hydropower Vision report presents the nation with a very clear choice to make. Are we going to put more clean energy on the table, or severely limit our opportunities to meet our global promise and reduce greenhouse gases?

Congress has the opportunity to put us on a path to unlocking hydropower’s potential.

Linda Church Ciocci is the executive director of the National Hydropower Association.