August 24th is National Hydropower Day. Hydropower has been providing clean electric energy for over 130 years and is America’s original “green” energy source. Our country has more than 83,000 dams that provide a variety of benefits, including flood risk reduction, water supply, navigation, recreation and hydroelectric power. Despite this high number of dams, only about 2,500 generate hydroelectricity—a mere 3 percent of the total. Most of these are more than 40 years old.
The Biden Administration is making a major push for clean, low carbon renewable energy, and this is a key part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Hydropower is one of many ways to advance our national renewable energy goals. While there are many other available means to produce clean renewable energy, including solar, wind, geothermal, marine kinetic, biomass, biofuels, and nuclear power generation, there are limitations to all of these power sources, such as weather variability, dispatchability and waste disposal. Hydropower is proven and reliable; baseload and flexible. Because it can quickly go from zero power to maximum output, it provides essential back-up, especially for variable wind and solar generation, as well as peaking power for high-load periods.
Unfortunately, large upfront capital costs and environmental concerns make new dams difficult to permit, finance, and build. Existing dams have already overcome these impediments, and are a viable option for new hydropower. Adding hydro to an existing dam is much more acceptable to the environmental community and regulators, and more practicable for financers and developers. Per the National Hydropower Association (NHA), the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill has $125 million to incentivize adding hydropower generation to existing non-powered dams, and $75 million for hydropower efficiency improvements, such as new low-head turbines. Additionally H.R. 4375, the Twenty-First Century Dams Act introduced in the house on July 9th, and its companion S.2386, Twenty-First Century Dams Act, introduced in the Senate on July 15th, provide $25.8 billion for dam safety, enhancing clean energy production and grid resilience and restoring river ecosystems. This legislation has strong bipartisan support and will hopefully be included in the infrastructure funding.
Although there is still of lot of legislative work to do, and several months before we see funding for projects, we are on the cusp of an exciting time for the expansion and revitalization of America’s hydroelectric infrastructure. So let’s celebrate National Hydropower Day and engage representatives at the local, state and federal levels so that the resultant legislation addresses American’s clean energy needs.