By Michael Harris
Those who remember NBC's Saturday Night Live of the early 1990s undoubtedly recall Al Franken, who, after serving as both a cast member and writer for the show, has since become a U.S. Senator from Minnesota.
And though Franken indeed looked (and acted) every bit a senator in his pinstripe suit and freshly polished wingtips, it was still a surreal moment for me in April 2013 when he slid quietly into a seat in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee chamber and began mulling over several pieces of legislation that could have significant impacts on the future of the American hydropower industry.
Try as I might, it was impossible not to imagine Franken playing the part of what might be his best-remembered role - the endearingly aloof, well-coiffed, cardigan-wearing host of Saturday Night Live's recurring "Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley" sketch - as he sat in front of me.
But as I listened to the support offered for the Hydropower Improvement Act, Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development Act and Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act by Franken and others on the Senate Energy Committee, I began to realize just how relevant Stuart Smalley's trademark phrase has become for domestic hydroelectric development in recent years.
"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me," Smalley would say, and even though Sen. Ron Wyden perhaps captured the sentiment more concisely by emphatically telling the Senate Energy Committee that "hydro is back," Smalley's line still rings true.
The discussions and testimony I heard while in Washington make it clear that hydroelectricity is very much on the minds of America's policy makers given its practicality, reliability, and, perhaps most importantly, affordability - changing hydropower from an also-ran to a primary consideration.
"The fact that four of the first five energy bills considered by the committee this year promote hydropower shows how important this resource can be to a clean energy future," Wyden told the Senate committee.
That support isn't coming exclusively from one party or one interest group is also significant, and it only reinforces the notion that those outside the industry are taking note of hydropower's virtues.
"You have legislative gridlock for as far as the eye can see - except for hydro," Wyden said. "It seems to me that what hydro has done in the last few years is becoming the gold standard in terms of collaboration and showing how you can bring people together."
Work must still be done within the Senate before any of the bills discussed at the Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing go before President Obama for enactment. That said, it's truly an exciting time for hydropower and I look forward to seeing how each of these acts progress in the coming months.
Until then, however, maybe the industry should just take a moment to put on its favorite pastel sweater, look reassuringly into a mirror, and remind itself that, "Hydro is good enough, hydro is smart enough, and doggone it, people like us."
by Michael Harris
Michael Harris is online editor of HydroWorld.com, the website for Hydro Review. Michael recently covered the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hydropower hearings in Washington, D.C. He shares perspectives from his observations of the hearings.
For more insight from the PennWell hydro group editors in the Hydro Talk blog, click here.