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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.

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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Hydropower is more than 100 years old in the U.S. The first dam to use hydraulic reaction turbines to generate electricity here was in 1882 on the Fox River in Appleton, Wis. It was revolutionary at the time and the results were so impressive that it kicked off a dam-building spree: From 1905 through the 1930s, several large, iconic dams, including the famous Hoover and Roosevelt dams in the West, were constructed. During that time, nearly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity came from hydropower.

By mid-century, the growth of hydroelectric power through dams was on the wane as other forms of power generation—nuclear, natural gas, coal—gained momentum. Today, hydropower makes up only about 6 percent of the U.S. electric supply, with the largest hydropower producers in the West: Washington, California and Oregon. Outside the U.S., hydropower accounts for 16 percent of global electricity production.

There are several types of hydroelectric facilities, but all are powered by the kinetic energy of flowing water as it moves downstream. Turbines and generators capture and convert that energy into electricity, which is then fed into the electrical grid. The water itself is not reduced or used up in the process, and because it is an endless, constantly recharging system, hydropower is defined as a renewable energy by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But it’s not considered renewable by everyone. It comes with some “pretty significant environmental baggage,” says John Seebach, senior director of federal river management with the conservation group American Rivers. “The reluctance to call hydropower a renewable energy is based on the impact of dams on fisheries and water flows.”

Several large dams block migrating fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Dam reservoirs impact flows, temperatures and silt loads of rivers and streams. Over the years, these factors have drastically reduced fish populations. At one time, the Klamath River in Oregon and California had salmon runs in the millions. The construction of four dams along the river reduced the fish runs to a fraction of that.

That’s why hydropower doesn’t count toward utilities’ renewable energy mandates in most states—that, and the fact that there is already so much hydro out there. More than 30 states have renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require utilities to generate a percentage of their power from renewable sources. Counting all hydropower would significantly lessen the impact of these standards, particularly in states where hydropower already provides a substantial amount of electricity. In those states, experts say, counting it would discourage the development of new renewable sources. Similarly, if hydropower were classified as renewable, some states would have to reset their targets and those might end up unrealistically high.

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California, the second-largest U.S. hydroelectric producer, set goals for renewable energy sources in 2002 and 2011. Utilities in that state will be required to generate a third of their power from such sources by 2020. But the state set a limit on the inclusion of hydropower. It allows utilities to count only the hydropower produced by smaller hydropower projects—those capable of producing 30 megawatts or less—toward the renewable mandate. Last year, a bill in the California State Assembly proposed allowing utilities to count large hydropower facilities as well.

The Sierra Club and a nonprofit watchdog called The Utility Reform Network (TURN) opposed the bill. TURN wrote that the reversal “would effectively reduce the RPS targets for utilities with existing large hydroelectric generation in their portfolios and significantly undermine the impact of the RPS program on the development of new renewable energy projects in California and the West.” The group estimated that changing the rules would lower California’s renewable energy goal from 33 percent to 30 percent—and possibly even more if utilities were allowed to increase imports of hydro from neighboring states. Ultimately, the bill failed to make it out of committee.

California’s current distinction on size reflects similar policies in other states. Throughout the country, large hydropower facilities are not generally counted toward renewable energy goals. Yet every state counts some hydropower in their RPS. How it’s tallied, however, varies state to state. Michigan and Missouri, for example, don’t count hydro if it requires the construction of new dams or significant expansion of existing ones. California and Iowa only figure in energy produced by small hydropower facilities. And Ohio lets utilities count it as long as facilities are not harmful to fish, wildlife or water quality.

But some groups, like the National Hydropower Association and the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, argue that if states want to meet their renewable energy goals, all hydropower should count. “If lawmakers want to lower energy costs, encourage innovation, and reduce emissions, they should repeal all mandates and subsidies and create a level playing field for all energy sources,” Taylor Smith, a policy analyst at the institute, recently wrote. “Government should not pick winners and losers, especially in the energy arena.” If states included all renewable sources in RPS mandates, these groups say, they would essentially create competitive pressure on wind and solar to reduce costs and scale up.

Besides, proponents argue, hydropower has a lot of virtues. Not only is it clean and renewable, it is essential to new “intermittent” renewables such as wind and solar. Hydro output can be quickly and easily turned up or down to keep the electrical grid in balance as daily doses of sunshine and wind wax and wane. Furthermore, water from rivers is a purely domestic resource, which means almost no conflicts with foreign suppliers and no interruptions as a result of labor strikes or transportation issues abroad. According to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, hydropower turbines are capable of converting 90 percent of available energy into electricity. That’s more efficient than any other form of generation, including even the best fossil fuel power plant, which is only about 50 percent efficient.

While President Obama might not have mentioned hydropower in his speech in June, it is mentioned in his Climate Action Plan. The administration agrees with proponents that hydropower is essential to meeting renewable energy targets, which are set to double by 2020. To that end, Obama wants to encourage the development of hydroelectric power at existing dams. Across the country, there are more than 80,000 dams, and only about 3 percent of them are used to generate electricity. The administration sees this as an opportunity to expand renewable energy by adding generators or retrofitting existing nonpowered dams.

All sides generally agree on one point: There is no need to build new dams to harvest power. As environmentalists see it, it makes more sense to incentivize dam operators to maximize efficiency. “In our view, that is the best bang for the buck,” says Seebach of American Rivers. “The dams are already there.”

What’s more, he adds, “technology to mitigate damages of dams is worlds better than it was 20 or 30 years ago.” Take fish ladders. For years, several federal agencies have overseen the construction of fish ladders at dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington state, the largest producer of U.S. hydroelectric power. In July, the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released a draft evaluation of their progress regarding the salmon population. To date, it says, they are on track to meet individual dam survival goals of 96 percent in spring and 93 percent in summer.

New technology is helping produce other hydropower sites. The Bureau of Reclamation released a report last April detailing how more than 500 of its canals could be tapped to produce new supplies of electricity. In Yakima, Wash., the bureau is experimenting with a hydrokinetic turbine, described by some as a 15-foot roll of yellow Scotch tape. Last year, it was dropped onto the Roza Canal’s concrete floor. As water streams down the canal, the turbine spins, which in turn generates electricity. The bureau is testing it to make sure it doesn’t obstruct water operations or affect water quality, but the idea is that these devices could be placed in spillways and water treatment plants. These small-scale turbines are seen as the biggest and most important growing component within hydropower.

But a project’s size is a poor measure of its environmental impact, critics claim. “It depends on how you operate it,” says Seebach. He points to a project on the Penobscot River in Maine as a good example of balancing size and operation. Through an agreement between industry representatives, the Penobscot Indian Nation and government officials, three dams are being taken out of service and better fish passage is being installed at another. In 2012, the Great Works Dam was removed, and in July 2013, destruction of the Veazie Dam began. A third dam is being decommissioned. At the same time, the electricity generating capacity of the dams that remain was increased, to assure no overall loss in power. The removal of the Veazie Dam will allow free passage for Atlantic salmon and 11 other species to 1,000 miles of inland waters ideal for spawning and rearing.

But the Penobscot solution may be one of a handful of exceptions that prove the rule. As it stands, hydropower is still stuck behind wind and solar, sitting in purgatory between being accepted as a renewable energy and not being considered as such. That’s the crux of the hydropower dilemma. It’s clean and renewable. At the same time, it is not without environmental impacts. But as states set ever more ambitious clean energy goals, can hydropower continue to be neglected?

It is not an either/or, say advocates from conservation groups such as American Rivers and Trout Unlimited. They aren’t opposed to hydropower; they just want to see it done right. “Not all hydro is considered equal,” says Kate Miller, western energy and water counsel at Trout Unlimited. “There are good projects and a lot of bad projects in terms of environmental impact. Ultimately, the goal of renewable development is to minimize the ecological footprint.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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