Stop Wasting America’s Hydropower Potential? OK, To What End?

Though it did not get a ton of traction in the news, there has been a recent attempt to reinsert hydropower into the national debate about our energy future.  In an op-ed in the New York Times, Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski and Jay Faison (chief executive of ClearPath Foundation, an organization focused on “conservative solutions for a clean energy future”)  argue that government bureaucracy, environmental groups, and the president need to get out of the way and let America realize the vast energy potential slumbering in its flowing water by streamlining the permitting process to refit, relicense, and build new hydropower projects.  Why the need for the additional energy?  For the authors, it’s about combating global warming by increasing America’s renewable energy portfolio.  It is interesting to see hydroelectricity being enlisted in the movement against global warming, and some of their arguments make sense.  But on its face their proposal actually does nothing to advance its purported goal of reducing the greenhouse gases created by the US’s electrical grid.

The piece is unique, as in the current conversation about the “green” energy future, it is a rare thing to hear water power even mentioned.  At the moment, wind and solar power are the darlings of the environmental movement, the knights in shining armor that will rescue our energy system from dirty sources.    The absence of hydro from the conversation is odd, because it is similarly deemed to be “renewable” energy.  As the authors note, it is by far the nation’s most important renewable energy source, accounting for six percent of our electricity supply–more than solar and wind combined.  Part of the reluctance to label hydro green might stem from widespread awareness of the negative environmental impacts of dams.  But part might also derive from the belief that America has already exhausted its hydropower resources.

As the op-ed correctly notes, this impression couldn’t be further from the truth.  Despite intensive development of many of the country’s waterways, the United States still possesses vast reserves of unused hydroelectricity.  Some of this unused potential exists in the form of dams with outdated equipment or impoundments–mostly locks and canals–that are not outfitted to generate electricity.  By far the greatest stores rest in untapped waterways, such as those that Senator Murkowski mentions in her home state of Alaska.  The authors argue that legislation is necessary to reduce the “red tape” that makes it so difficult to update existing dams and get new ones built, and that Obama should welcome this legislation if he is serious about fighting global warming.

Parts of this argument make good common sense.  Certainly, it would be reasonable to ensure that those dams that have already been licensed produce energy efficiently.  But setting aside the authors’ debatable (to the say the least) argument that lack of recent hydro development is a case of unnecessary government regulation, the piece has a much deeper problem.  Despite their pleas ostensibly being prompted by worries about climate change, the authors fail to explain how adding additional hydropower capacity will work to address this problem.

Generating more electricity from renewable energy sources does not magically lead to fewer greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.  In order for that to happen, the renewable resources would have to be substituted for existing fossil-fueled plants.  Doing so would mean shuttering thermal plants and integrating the new hydro dams into the national grid.  History shows that neither would be a small (or inexpensive) feat.  Building the nation’s grid cost billions of dollars, and maintaining it is not cheap either.  Integrating Alaska’s isolated electricity supply into American–or even neighboring Canadian–systems would carry a hefty price tag.

All energy development carries environmental impacts.  So while it is true that hydroelectricity is clean in the sense that it creates no greenhouse gases at the moment of generation, we should be under no illusions that hydro is an environmentally friendly alternative.  Dams, diversions, and reservoirs require massive fossil energy outlays to be constructed and maintained, and they drastically alter ecosystems as well.  Nevertheless, a democratic society can productively debate whether these consequences are less serious than those currently posed by fossil-fueled electricity.  The democratic discourse, however, is not much helped by hydropower development plans that claim to be green, but leave out half of the equation.  Such arguments might also give the impression that their proponents are less interested in the “greenness” of the dams than the dams themselves.