President Obama has described climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing our country and has said he is open to new ideas to address it. He can start by supporting legislation to increase the nation’s hydropower capacity, one of our vital renewable energy resources.
Hydropower harnesses the force of flowing water to generate electricity. It already produces about 6 percent of the nation’s electricity and nearly half of its renewable energy, more than wind and solar combined. This is enough electricity to power 30 million homes and, according to the Department of Energy, avoids some 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. That amounts to taking about 40 million cars off the road for one year.
But we could be doing much more to harness the huge potential of hydropower, even without building new dams.
For instance, only 3 percent of the nation’s 80,000 dams now produce electricity. Electrifying just the 100 top impoundments — primarily locks and dams on the Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas Rivers that are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers — would generate enough electricity for nearly three million more homes and create thousands of jobs.
And upgrading and modernizing the turbines at existing hydropower dams could yield a similar amount of additional electricity-generating capacity.
Despite the benefits of this technology, American hydropower development has stalled because of government red tape and environmental opposition. Less capacity has been added each decade since the 1970s, even as our infrastructure ages. Half of our plants use turbines or other major equipment designed and installed more than 50 years ago.
At the heart of the problem is a broken federal permitting process that has created an unnavigable gantlet for hydropower projects. While mandatory environmental reviews must be stringent to protect waterways and wildlife, federal bureaucrats insist on duplicative, sequential processes that exacerbate regulatory uncertainty, delay approvals and drive up consumer costs.
Compounding the roadblocks are environmental groups that claim to adhere to sound science but hold remarkably outdated views of hydropower and its benefits. Rather than acknowledge technological advances and the environmental safeguards in our laws, these groups have filed lawsuits to dismantle dams or stop their construction.
Add it all up, and it can now take well over a decade to relicense an existing hydropower dam. For the California customers of Pacific Gas and Electric, relicensing costs have run as high as $50 million a dam — all for the privilege of continuing to operate an existing renewable energy project.
One-third of the nation’s hydropower dams will require license renewals by 2030. We need to make this process more efficient by reducing bureaucratic and administrative delays that end up increasing electricity rates and slowing hydropower’s expansion.
Fortunately, Congress has stepped in to get hydropower development back on track. Legislation in both chambers, including a measure in the Senate that was approved by a bipartisan vote in committee, would direct agencies to expedite the permitting of new projects and the relicensing of existing ones, and would advance the use of hydropower nationwide.
But while Congress has chosen to lead on this important issue, President Obama has threatened to veto the House bill, claiming it would undermine environmental safeguards. The challenge is finding a way to bring state and federal agencies to the table with the applicants at the beginning of the process so they can identify potential problems and coordinate environmental reviews. The legislation would not change the authority of federal agencies to impose environmental conditions.
There is much more that we can do. Upgrading existing dams is just one of the approaches that holds big promise. Coordinating hydropower projects on a regionwide basis might allow for permitting on a more timely basis and provide better opportunities for environmental mitigation. There is also tremendous potential for electricity generation using new marine hydrokinetic technologies that convert the energy of waves, tides and river and ocean currents into electricity. And it is important to recognize the huge, untapped potential for hydropower in Alaska.
With hydropower, Congress has given the president an opportunity to address climate change and “bridge the divide” between parties. If he is serious about expanding the use of clean, renewable energy, he should at last give hydropower the attention it deserves in his final year.