Goals should be lofty. They should inspire us to achieve the things that are just beyond our reach. Decarbonizing our national electricity grid is a worthy aspiration, and getting there is attainable. But, while solar, wind and battery storage may grab the headlines, a simple truth is often overlooked – we can’t achieve deep decarbonization of our electricity system without hydropower.
Why? Because hydropower is the nation’s first renewable resource, providing clean, carbon-free energy to roughly 30 million Americans, and 40 percent of the United States’ overall renewable electricity. In addition, hydropower is flexible enough to integrate increasing amounts of wind and solar onto the grid. That flexibility allows it to quickly provide dispatchable generation to balance the minute-by-minute electricity generation variations caused by cloud cover, wind gusts, or fuel-supply disruptions from non-renewable resources.
In addition to 80 GWs of traditional hydropower, the U.S. electricity system also benefits from 23 GWs of pumped storage. Representing 95 percent of the nation’s energy storage, pumped storage hydropower facilities are like sponges; they absorb excess energy from the grid and store it for later. All of which is to say, hydropower is the renewable resource that integrates the other renewables.
Nevertheless, hydropower too often gets ignored on the federal and the state levels. This neglect, however, is not benign. In fact, it may hinder the nation’s efforts to achieve a carbon-free grid.
Reaching a 100 percent clean energy target is a moonshot that states throughout the country are increasingly attempting. Some states understand the value of hydropower’s contribution. Washington state, for example, passed legislation requiring 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. The bill allows all existing hydropower generation to be used for compliance, and for hydropower to generate renewable energy credits.
At the other end of the spectrum, California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) only counts hydropower projects under 30 megawatts as an eligible renewable or zero emission energy source. This is despite the fact that hydropower generated nearly 13 percent of the state's total power. The absence of hydropower from California’s RPS runs counter to its need for energy storage. In 2016, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory determined that for California to reach 50 percent solar, it would need another 15 gigawatts of storage by 2030. The need for more pumped storage hydropower couldn’t be more glaring.
California isn’t alone. The vast majority of states with RPSs do not treat hydropower equally with other carbon-free resources.
Unfortunately, what’s happening in the states is being mirrored here in Washington, D.C. Regardless of your thoughts on the Green New Deal, the fact that hydropower was not even mentioned is striking. At the same time, it isn’t being discussed as a clean energy solution by the environmental community, or touted as a mature investment opportunity by Wall Street. From Congress to think tanks, from the campaign trail to national climate organizations, the omission of hydropower is at best short-sided.
Still no other energy source protects and preserves our natural ecosystems, while providing recreational opportunities for families, like hydro. Also, hydropower can be a cost-effective asset, with low variable operation and maintenance costs that can stabilize future prices for ratepayers. Upfront costs are high, but its value extends 50 years and beyond.
Meanwhile, many exciting innovations within the industry are happening. We are exploring floating solar panels on reservoirs, pairing conventional hydro facilities with battery storage, and developing next generation fish passage technologies like Whooshh Innovations. Also, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, there is great potential to sustainably add nearly 5 gigawatts of generation to existing, non-powered dams.
Policy makers from both sides of the aisle should recognize what hydropower brings to the table, and look for ways to support the industry. A great place to start is to provide parity in tax incentives and environmental markets.
Unlike other technologies, federal tax credits to encourage hydropower development were allowed to “sunset” in 2015, putting it at a competitive disadvantage. And just as nonsensical, most state laws exclude hydropower from receiving the renewable energy credits that have helped drive the growth of the wind and solar industries.
At the same time, we must protect our existing hydro assets. Red-tape and bureaucratic infighting between federal and state regulators has resulted in dozens of hydropower relicensing proceedings dragging on for well over a decade.
Hydropower deserves far greater attention in the nation’s energy and climate policy debates. Like all forms of energy technology, it is not a perfect solution in all circumstances. Yet, it is critical to the vitality of the nation’s clean energy and carbon-free future.
Hydropower needs more than a fresh look. It deserves a seat at the table.
About the Author: Malcolm Woolf is the president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association.
Note: This op-ed was originally published in The Hill on October 22, 2019 and is re-published here with the author's permission.