Renewing Interest in Hydropower

July 16, 2008
It may not be smart to take water for granted

The recent flooding events throughout the Midwest proved that it may not be smart to take water for granted. While cleaning up after the mess obviously adds to the losses by uncontrolled water, such events may remind us that man does not live by bread alone. Food production is responsible for about 85 percent of all water use, and anything made from those crops will use even more. The amount of water that goes into the making of a cotton T-shirt is 2,000 liters. Nuclear power plants need up to 20 billion gallons per year. Researchers at Virginia Tech calculated that a 60-watt incandescent bulb powered by nuclear generation for 12 hours a day for 1 year requires up to 6,000 gallons of water. Unless you live in a state like Idaho, which gets 85 percent of its electricity from 55 main hydropower dams, you may not have thought much about it. Although hydropower provides only 9 percent of the national power portfolio of 264 Gw, it has benefits and advantages that may not be recognized, which could greatly expand its role among renewable energy options. In addition to its extremely high efficiency (up to 93 percent), hydropower also provides many other social and environmental benefits. Too often, hydropower is overlooked by policymakers and the public in debates on energy and environmental policy.

Perhaps we're at the cusp of a new phase in energy policy: One in which water footprints become as salient in public discussions as carbon neutrality. Taking note of that possibility was a hearing conducted on June 12 by the Subcommittee on Water and Power, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Natural Resources. It provided valuable insight into hydropower's potential in the overall mix of energy resources. The hearing featured two panels and nine witnesses with a wide range of experience regarding energy and hydropower issues. Possibly the broadest treatment of the energy issues surrounding hydropower was posted on June 20 during the 10-day public information period by the National Hydropower Association (NHA), which represents more than 140 member organizations involved in all aspects of water resources. So, here are some of the highlights about hydropower from the NHA report to Congress that could impact your bottom line - even though you might not live in a flood plain.

Hydropower's Current Contribution
Hydropower is America's leading domestic source of "clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable electricity." Currently, energy from hydropower resources accounts for 7 percent of the nation's electricity in terms of production, and about 9 percent in terms of total capacity. Overall, hydropower accounts for approximately 75 percent of renewable-electricity production and 79 percent of the nation's renewable-energy capacity. There is approximately 95,000 MW of hydropower capacity in the United States, including pumped storage. Hydropower resources are particularly abundant in the Pacific Northwest, where approximately 75 percent of electricity demand is met through the use of hydropower. As a result of the Pacific Northwest's reliance on hydropower, the region enjoys some of the lowest electricity rates in the United States. For example: In 2006, the U.S. total average price per kilowatt-hour was 8.9 cents; yet, in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (states that are in the top 10 for hydropower production), ratepayers paid considerably less, at 6.14, 6.53, and 4.92 cents per kilowatt-hour, respectively. At a time when consumers are experiencing greater strain on their finances due to rising gasoline prices and associated costs on goods and services throughout the economy, low electricity rates are a tangible economic benefit.

Hydropower's Growth Potential
One myth that continues about hydropower is that it's a tapped-out resource; however, the NHA claims that new studies demonstrate this is not the case. "While hydropower has been around for more than 100 years, new technologies are turning this longtime resource into a leading-edge, 21st-century energy opportunity." The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) projects that new hydropower technologies - including efficiency improvements and capacity additions at existing facilities, generation technologies added to existing non-powered dams, and ocean, tidal, and in-stream hydrokinetic technologies - have the potential to add 90,000 MW to the nation's energy portfolio. This represents a doubling of hydropower's current contribution and is enough electricity to power an additional 76 million homes. This potential development is available right now, in the near term. Looking to the immediate future, EPRI projects that 23,000 MW of potential could be developed by 2025. Specifically, these numbers include:

  • 2,300 MW from capacity gains at existing conventional hydropower facilities.
  • 5,000 MW of new conventional hydropower at existing non-powered dams.
  • 2,700 MW of new small and low-head conventional hydropower (<30 MW
  • installed capacity).
  • 10,000 MW from ocean energy technologies.
  • 3,000 MW from hydrokinetic technologies.
  • Both the EPRI and the NHA believe that these projections are conservative, as additional and more detailed resource assessments are needed for pumped storage and ocean, in-stream hydrokinetic, and conduit power opportunities. To demonstrate this, currently pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) are license applications for 430 megawatts of conventional hydropower capacity and 900 megawatts of new pumped-storage capacity. Another 448 megawatts of conventional hydropower and 2,783 megawatts of pumped storage are before the commission in the pre-filing stage, before a license application is submitted. All combined, the commission has 10,000 MW of potential new hydropower capacity before it - a level that has not been seen in more than a decade.

    Clean Energy Strategies
    Hydropower, in all of its forms, is a renewable energy resource and should be recognized and credited as such, according to the NHA. As mentioned earlier, too often, hydropower is the forgotten renewable in the discussion on clean-energy policies, such as the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and climate-change legislation. The definition of renewable-energy resources in the leading RPS proposals falls short. Currently, incremental hydropower generation is the only category of conventional hydropower that qualifies. The NHA believes that a federal RPS should include incremental hydropower (capacity additions and efficiency improvements at existing hydro projects) plus development at existing non-powered dams and the full suite of waterpower technologies: ocean, tidal, in-stream hydrokinetic, and conduit power (as included in HR 6049 pending). In addition to the RPS, the NHA believes that any climate-change bill providing incentives for renewable energy must also treat hydropower resources equitably. Recently, during the consideration of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, renewable-energy resources were provided direct allowances under the bill's renewable-energy bonus allowance scheme. The bill, however, limited allowances for hydropower to "incremental hydropower" and power from ocean waves under the definition of "renewable-energy resource." This definition omits entire segments of the hydropower industry, including development at non-powered dams, ocean and tidal current power, in-stream hydrokinetic resources, and conduit power, as well as such new development, such as small hydropower opportunities. "Such a [limited] definition would result in a missed opportunity to support these clean, renewable resources," claims the NHA.

    Hydropower's Climate Benefits
    Many experts claim that there is no silver bullet when it comes to meeting the challenge of climate change. The U.S. response will require maximum use of all renewable- and clean-energy resources. As such, hydropower has a major role to play. Electricity generated by conventional hydropower and new ocean, tidal, and in-stream hydrokinetic resources reduces the need for additional generation from fossil fuels and avoids the emissions associated with those resources. The NHA claims that hydropower generation in the United States currently avoids approximately 225 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions each year. Also, hydropower's unique operational attributes are critical to integrating other additional intermittent renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, into the electric grid. Hydropower plant operators can control how much electricity their facilities are producing at any given time, and they can do so quickly in response to changes in demand for power, smoothing out the peaks and valleys created by intermittent renewable energy resources. Pumped-storage facilities efficiently utilize power generated by other renewables during off-peak hours, moving water into upper reservoirs to be stored, and then released later during peak hours of electricity consumption. These facilities also contribute to grid reliability and help lower peak energy prices. By assisting in the accelerated deployment of other additional renewable resources, hydropower helps to even further reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.

    The NHA says that hydropower has many other important non-power benefits, including water supply, flood control, irrigation, navigation, recreation, and grid reliability. For example, recreation is perhaps hydropower's most visible and publicly driven benefit. According to the FERC, there are more than 28,000 tent/trailer/recreational vehicle sites for camping, more than 1,100 miles of trails, and more than 1,200 picnic areas at the hydropower projects it licenses. In addition, total reservoir surface area at licensed projects is more than 3 million acres, creating more than 47,000 miles of shoreline with more than 2,000 water access sites. FERC-licensed hydropower projects also create 82 million recreation days annually. In addition, hydropower's critical role in restoring electric supply after a blackout cannot be overstated. Most power plants need electricity from an outside source to start up and run. Hydropower generation provides that source of power.

    Hydropower is already a major source of energy for the United States, but it could do much more. The nascent ocean, tidal, and in-stream hydrokinetic technologies are at the beginning stages of commercial deployment. Both technologies have a tremendous growth potential that could be realized through sustained federal and private support. These renewable resources are clean, climate-friendly technologies that can provide significant base load power to the United States at a time when demand for electricity continues to increase dramatically. By expanding the support for hydropower resources, power consumers could obtain energy and environmental benefits of existing hydropower projects and infrastructure, as well as the emerging suite of new waterpower technologies.

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