Infrastructure & Environment

Is Hydropower a Renewable Energy or Not?

As states set ambitious goals to increase their use of renewable energies, hydropower could help them meet their goals. But environmental concerns have kept investment in hydropower to a trickle.
by | September 2013
Chief Joseph Dam in Washington state is the second-largest hydropower producing dam in the United States.
Chief Joseph Dam in Washington state is the second-largest hydropower producing dam in the United States. Brad Skiff

On Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 took a photo from space that changed the way the world saw itself. It was the first-ever photo of Earth, revealing “a glowing marble of blue oceans, and green forests, and brown mountains brushed with white clouds.”

President Obama recently invoked that event in a June speech announcing his new Climate Action Plan, which calls for the U.S. to dramatically increase its use of renewable energies. “Over the past four years, we’ve doubled the electricity that we generate from zero-carbon wind and solar power,” the president said. “So the plan I’m announcing today will help us double again our energy from wind and sun.”

What the president didn’t mention in his speech was America’s—and the world’s, for that matter—largest renewable energy source: water. That marble of blue that dominates the view of Earth from space and accounts for more than 60 percent of all renewable power in the U.S. rarely, it seems, gets the same billing as wind and solar.

For a power source that is clean and renewable—it doesn’t pollute the air because no fuels are burned and it’s renewable because it uses the Earth’s water cycle to generate electricity—one would think hydropower would get as much attention and investment as other noncarbon sources of energy. But in general, hydropower is not even considered a renewable energy in most states or, for the most part, by the federal government. So it begs the question, is hydropower a renewable energy or not? The answer to that is key since it underlies policies states develop in fulfilling ambitious renewable energy goals.

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