Let's give hydropower a boost

It was with mixed feelings that I read the recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicating that, in April, annual non-hydro renewable generation in this country surpassed annual hydropower generation for the eighth month in a row.

On the one hand, I’m glad our country is promoting renewables in its quest to meet increasing electricity demand. But on the other hand, I can’t help but be disappointed.

Only a decade ago, hydropower accounted for three times as much generation in the U.S. as non-hydro renewable sources (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, landfill gas and municipal solid waste). So what happened in such a short amount of time to change all that?

According to the EIA, recent growth in wind and solar has been the primary driver. This growth reflects policies such as state renewable portfolio standards and federal tax credits, as well as declining costs of technology.

For context, non-hydro renewable generation exceeded hydropower generation for the first time in October 2012. This most recent trend was much more long-lived, however, lasting from September 2013 to April 2014. Hydropower generation exceeded non-hydro renewables again in May 2014 (the most recent data available), but EIA projects that the overall trend in 2014 will be toward non-hydro renewable generation.

Even more telling, by 2040, EIA projects that non-hydro renewables will provide more than twice as much generation as hydropower. Assuming the continuation of tax credits or other policies that support non-hydro renewables, their overall generation and generation share relative to hydropower will be much higher, EIA predicts.

Amazingly, hydropower capacity has only increased by slightly more than 1% over the past decade, while wind capacity has increased nearly tenfold, EIA says.

Against this backdrop, there has been a lot of recent discussion regarding the untapped hydropower potential in the U.S.:

-- In April 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory released an assessment that estimated as much as 65 GW of new hydropower capacity could be developed across more than 3 million American rivers and streams.

-- Speaking at the National Hydropower Association annual conference in April 2014, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said “Hydropower can double its contributions by the year 2030.”

-- In January 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released an assessment that identified 419 potential locations for hydro development at its non-powered dams, with a cumulative output potential of 6,256 MW.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy unveiled its Hydropower Vision plan in April. According to DOE, this landmark vision will establish the analytical basis for an ambitious roadmap to usher in a new era of growth in sustainable domestic hydropower over the next half century.

With considerable interest in developing new hydropower in the U.S., what is hindering this vision?

Is it negative public opinion that’s keeping hydro from getting built? No. According to a recent study by the National Hydropower Association, 78% of voters says hydropower is cleaner than current forms of energy, 77% says it is environmentally friendly and 74% say it is reliable. They also favor work to both maintain existing plants and expand hydropower generation in the U.S. To support this work, 77% of voters favor both reinvesting in federal hydropower facilities and investing in hydropower R&D, while 74% favor providing credits and incentives similar to other renewables and 69% favor reducing relicensing and retrofitting times.

Speaking of these credits and incentives other renewables receive, why does it seem that hydropower is getting the short end of the stick? Sure, there ARE hydro-favorable policies being passed, and there are some incentives in place to encourage hydro development, but we all know more is needed.

So here’s where I make my big call to action: Let’s make some more noise about hydropower. A LOT of noise. We need to make sure our elected representatives understand that hydropower is renewable, reliable, sustainable and invaluable in supporting integration of those “other” renewables. Hydropower needs to be as top-of-mind in their awareness as are those “hot” renewables, wind and solar (and geothermal and biomass). Start today. And don’t stop. Together, we can give hydropower a boost, I’m sure of it.

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