With the nation searching for clean energy solutions, a recent commentary by Ron Way (“Is hydropower green? Not really,” Nov. 15) asked Minnesotans a valid question: Is hydropower green? The author’s conclusion, however, is at odds with the facts, the Department of Energy and the American people. Hydropower isn’t just a renewable — it’s the nation’s largest source of renewable energy, accounting for half of all generation of renewable energy.
At the national level, hydropower is combating climate change more than any other renewable resource. Thanks to hydropower, the U.S. avoids approximately 200 million metric tons of CO2 annually — the equivalent of taking 42 million cars off the road.
And, lest we forget, hydropower plays a significant role in bringing intermittent renewable resources to the grid. This is a real issue in Minnesota, which as of 2013 ranked seventh in the nation in net electricity generation from wind energy. The addition of wind is made possible only because of flexible energies like clean hydropower or natural gas that can adapt quickly to the ever-changing, moment-to-moment availability of wind generation. Hydropower is the only renewable that can help stabilize and integrate these intermittent renewables and facilitate more to come online.
We also can’t ignore the significant advances in environmental stewardship technologies that allow for the efficient passage of fish both upstream and downstream of dams. To be sure, the industry invests hundreds of millions in fish mitigation technologies and practices, as well as fish and wildlife protection, along thousands of miles of U.S. rivers.
At the same time, hydropower provides seasonal releases to support white-water kayaking and flat-water recreational opportunities at hundreds of lakes across the nation. Angling opportunities for bass, walleye and northern pike at the Fish Lake Reservoir Dam in Duluth are just one example in which hydropower supports Minnesota’s sporting traditions.
Despite these well-established and significant benefits of hydropower, Way chose to focus on outdated and one-sided criticisms of hydropower. Yet hydropower is poised for resurgence, and it stands ready to not only expand its clean energy output but to increase the nation’s energy portfolio by bringing on other renewables (wind and solar).
For example, 97 percent of the nation’s existing dams do not generate power. Powering even a portion of those dams could provide nearly 5 million more homes with renewable energy.
Everyone from grid operators to regulators to policymakers has started to recognize hydropower’s value in helping us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. And this resurgence has caused many of the old, intractable opponents of hydropower to become nervous.
These opponents know that their leverage lies in the hydropower licensing process, where it can take 10 years or more to permit a project. Conversely, you can license a natural gas plant in as few as two years. This difference, together with the uncertain result in the lengthy hydropower process, make it difficult for hydropower to attract investment.
As a remedy, two complementary bipartisan bills to modernize the process are making their way through Congress (H.R. 8 and S. 2012). These bills contain common-sense solutions to make the process more efficient and collaborative.
Critics have launched a coordinated campaign to block this legislation. And they are doing so by wrongly asserting that the hydropower industry isn’t a good steward of the environment.
The benefits of hydropower as a renewable resource are unquestionable. These attacks are really about preventing much-needed changes to the licensing process, which currently is open-ended with no entity charged with making sure that the needed environmental reviews and approvals are coordinated, that regulators cooperate in conducting environmental studies, and that all reviews and decisions are made in a timely manner.
Right now there is a hydropower project under development in Minneapolis — the A-Mill Artist Lofts. When completed, it will provide clean, renewable power to the low-income apartments and artist lofts. Modernizing the licensing process would make innovative small projects like this more available. But given the current licensing regime, there is no guarantee that this or any other project will succeed, as resource agencies can derail a project simply by doing nothing — delaying the process and a good project indefinitely.
The proposed reforms bring predictability and coordination to the process, without narrowing or undermining the authority of federal and state resources agencies and Indian tribes to ensure that a project is environmentally responsible. This is why they have received strong bipartisan support.
At the end of the day, the only real alternative to hydropower is a natural gas or coal-fired facility. Opponents of modernizing the licensing process and hydropower, therefore, are asking Minnesotans to choose between a clean-energy future or to deepen our dependency on fossil fuels. We think the better answer is obvious.
Linda Church Ciocci is the executive director of the National Hydropower Association.