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Is Hydropower the Cinderella of the Clean Energy Movement?

Is hydropower the Cinderella of the clean energy movement?

The pursuit of a carbon-free planet is a necessary and urgent task as we race to slow and ultimately reverse the pace of global warming. But honorable and worthy as this pursuit is, the road to our success has been fraught with myopic decisions that threaten to undermine our ultimate success.

Washington state, where I call home, offers a good example. In 2019, the state legislature passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA). The goal was to achieve a carbon-free electricity sector by 2045. The state already boasts the least carbon-intensive grid in the nation, generating roughly 60% of its electricity from hydropower, thanks to the mighty Columbia River. 

Before the bill passed the state legislature, a highly respected energy analytics group, E3, published a study on the state’s 100% carbon-free goals. Although well meaning, E3 found that CETA failed to consider the most rudimentary of economic concepts–diminishing marginal returns and opportunity cost.

Ensuring enough wind and solar power are available to meet demand, due to their intermittent nature, requires a massive overbuild of resources, even with our strong hydropower base to help fill in the gaps. As a result, the E3 study showed that the state could cost-effectively get to a 90% carbon-free grid, but that getting the final 10% would increase electricity costs exponentially.

The additional billions in costs it would take to achieve a completely carbon-free statewide grid will make it much harder for vulnerable and traditionally underserved communities within the state to make ends meet. Some anti-dam advocates would significantly add to these costs by eliminating productive hydropower projects the region depends upon for reliable, affordable electricity.

But in passing CETA, this basic examination of sociological and economic facts was entirely ignored.

At this moment in history, it is inexplicable that our political leaders and climate advocacy groups would not adequately consider the burden they are placing on underserved communities in the context of such regressive policies.

The Washington state legislature is not alone in its ability to make questionable policy decisions. On a national scale, we see policymakers consistently overlook the immense potential of hydropower to the detriment of the climate and the American people.

In February, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine felt compelled to tell Congress that bold carbon reduction goals are technically possible, but the biggest threat to achieving them is the likelihood of leaving economically disadvantaged groups behind due to unaffordable costs.

As a result, NASEM reminded policymakers that it is imperative to preserve operating nuclear and hydropower facilities, which are often much more cost effective than building solar and wind power with battery backup. Fortunately, NASEM understands something about economics.

The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based watchdog, recently urged a doubling of global investment in hydropower, calling it renewable energy’s “forgotten workhorse.” And there is plenty of room to invest. Roughly 97% of the nation’s dams don’t have hydropower generators installed. Many could be easily converted with minimal impact to the local environment.

In addition to being a renewable energy workhorse, hydropower could also be called the Cinderella of the energy storage world. Hydropower is in a completely different stratosphere compared with the most advanced utility-scale lithium-ion batteries. Even dams with moderately-sized reservoirs can store and release enough water to provide peaking energy for days at a time, whereas commercial long duration batteries are largely still trying to still break the four-hour barrier. This characteristic of hydropower is seldom recognized.

Meanwhile, hydropower continues to improve its energy and environmental capabilities. Advanced, fish-friendly hydropower turbines have already been installed in US dams which can increase generating capacity while safely passing juvenile salmon at a rate of over 99%; meaning it is safer for a fish to pass through one of these turbines than to go over a spillway or through a fish bypass system.

Additionally, hydropower will soon be used to generate “green” hydrogen which can be used in fuel cells to power transportation and other needs. The Pacific Northwest is at the forefront of this technology.

As a nation, having carbon-free goals is simply not good enough. We need to develop practical decarbonization policies that are inclusive of the communities we say we care about. That means spending our dollars wisely. In that vein, it’s time our elected leaders search far and wide for opportunities to enhance the one resource that fits our energy and societal requirements like a glass slipper; hydro.

Kurt Miller has spent almost 30 years in the Northwest energy and utilities industry and is currently the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower in the region. Since joining NWRP in March 2019, Kurt has made it a priority to find collaborative, science-driven solutions to our energy and environmental challenges. 

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