Guest Post: Hydropower’s Story Not Over Yet

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Today’s guest blog from Scott Corwin discuss the benefits of large-scale hydropower projects. Scott has over 20 years of experience with energy policy, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently Executive Director of the Public Power Council, a not-for-profit association whose mission is to preserve and protect the benefits of the Federal Columbia River Power System for consumer-owned utilities.

Most know that hydropower is the original renewable energy, with a time-tested history dating at least back to the Greco-Roman waterwheels. What many don’t know, however, is that the history of hydropower is still, in fact, being written, with a strong future and exciting potential to contribute to the dynamic energy landscape that lies ahead.

During an era of unprecedented change, this renewable and emission-free power source known for providing reliable base-load generation will become even better known for its adaptability to help quicken the energy evolution. That’s because the flexible attributes of hydropower, particularly its storage and ramping capability, are uniquely suited to balance the more intermittent generation sources that have gained in prominence, such as wind and solar. In many ways, hydropower delivers what other renewables simply can’t at the moment.

While the potential for extensive use of energy storage in batteries may lie in the future, the ability to store the energy of falling water behind a dam is here right now. Moreover, there is significant pursuit of new development of pumped storage hydropower projects to create even more capacity for meeting peak demand and balancing other resources. With these developments, a valuable part of supplying American energy could become even more useful.

A couple of years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a report finding that hydropower – already the largest source of renewable energy in the U.S. with over 100 gigawatts (GW) – can sustainably grow by 50 gigawatts by 2050, with much of that growth coming by 2030. This would include upgrading some existing plants, building new smaller plants, adding new pumped storage, and adding power to the existing dams and canals. Consider, for example, that only 3 percent of our nation’s 80,000 dams have power generation capabilities.

Since that important report, hydropower has continued to mature. Worldwide, hydropower has risen steadily to 1,267 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity in 2017, including 153 GW of pumped storage.

Why does this matter in today’s energy policy world? At just seven percent of total electricity generation in the U.S., hydropower already displaces about 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise come from traditional, thermal generation. Hydropower is efficient in its conversion of energy, is reliable from using time-tested technology, and is generally low-cost. The more we use hydropower, the more consumers benefit.

An example of the great potential of hydropower lies in the Pacific Northwest, where hydropower makes up 55 percent of total generation. And, combining the Federal Columbia River Power System dams with nuclear power, enables power sold by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to be 95 percent emission free and contain only 27 pounds of carbon for each megawatt hour of electricity. The national average, by comparison, is 998 pounds, a staggering difference.

To replace just one-eighth of BPA’s power with highly efficient gas generation would increase CO2 emissions by over two million metric tons each year, the equivalent of adding over 400,000 cars to the roads. And, complementing the electricity benefits, the hydropower system also provides the Northwest with flood control, navigation, irrigation, and recreation.

As technology continues to drive our future, hydropower is well-positioned to help balance the competing interests of limiting emissions and slaking our thirst for energy that fuels our tech savvy homes, vehicles, and industries. Pumped storage projects such as Eagle Mountain and Bison Peak, both in California, offer hope that policy makers see hydropower as part of America’s future and not just its past. As a safe, reliable, and low-cost resource that enables other renewable generation, hydropower is a proven technology that is poised to help strategically meet the challenges ahead.