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PERSPECTIVES: Hydropower and Jobs

Today’s political leaders are focused on policies and actions that can create jobs. And hydropower has important roles in job creation initiatives.

Job creation has deep roots in hydropower’s history. The ‘New Deal’ put forth in the 1930s by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aimed to break the stranglehold of the Great Depression on North America’s economy. Roosevelt’s solution involved implementing large-scale public works programs. None were more important than the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the construction of Hoover Dam (at the time, the largest public works project ever undertaken in the U.S.).

The hydro projects from the large dam-building era have provided tremendous economic benefits to multiple generations of U.S. and Canadian citizens. In the U.S. and, to some extent, Canada, this large dam-building era appears to be past. Yet millions of citizens and thousands of companies (a.k.a. employers) have had, and still have, the advantage of receiving low-cost hydropower... from facilities that have been producing renewable electricity for decades prior to renewable energy becoming ‘cool.’

Fast forward to today when, in New York State, a Power for Jobs program has been in place since 2002. Through this program, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) periodically, on a case-by-case basis, allocates some of its “low-cost hydropower” to entice companies to make investments and create jobs in the state. In some instances, the authority also makes allocations not to create jobs but to prevent the loss of jobs. To date, NYPA has made low-cost hydropower allocations worth more than $400 million. The subsidy per job created or saved, on average, amounts to about $12,000 per year.

A recent example is the authority’s award of a block of 5 MW of low-cost hydropower to Sunworks Solar, a California-based solar panel company. Sunworks Solar plans to build a $200 million plant for manufacturing photovoltaic panels in western New York. The plant will employ a staff of 175. The low-cost power grant was a factor in the company’s decision to site its plant in New York. [Is there a touch of irony here? Using inexpensive renewable energy (hydro) to make expensive renewable energy (solar) more cost competitive.]

Large publicly-owned hydro projects are a valuable “public good.” They have proven to be great public investments — in the vast majority of cases returning economic benefits many times their original cost. These facilities endure to deliver benefits today in ways that their original sponsors could not have imagined. Yet the sponsors did know that they were creating a grand legacy, and would surely be pleased with the relevance and value of their efforts to their 21st-century heirs.

Editor Emeritus

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