August 24th is National Hydropower Day. Hydropower has been providing clean electricity in the United States since 1880 when, according to Wikipedia, the Wolverine Chair Factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan, used a water turbine to power 16 street lights. 143 years later, hydropower is providing carbon-free energy to roughly 30 million Americans. Although hydropower represents less than 6.7% of U.S. electrical generation capacity, this 6.7% is 40% of the United States’ overall renewable electricity.
Electrification increases demand for clean electric power
Across the United States, major efforts are underway to transition to carbon-free energy. In addition to the electrification of housing and industry, there is a major push to greatly expand the use of electric vehicles (EVs) for private and commercial transportation. Powering our infrastructure and vehicles will require many new clean sources of electrical energy.
Although there are many other ways to produce renewable energy, including solar, wind, biomass, biofuels, and nuclear power generation, there are limitations to all of these power sources, including weather variability and waste disposal. Hydropower provides essential backup. Whereas wind and solar power depend on variable weather conditions, hydropower is incredibly reliable and can go from zero power to maximum output very quickly. While many people rely on electricity the most when the sun goes down, solar and wind often cannot keep up with the high demands. Hydropower can help provide the necessary backup for these high-load periods in the evenings.
Our country has more than 83,000 dams that provide various 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% of the total. These non-powered dams represent an incredible opportunity.
When adding clean energy, don’t forget hydropower
In 2012, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory analyzed existing dams nationwide and determined that the potential power generation at non-powered dams would be up to 12 gigawatts—enough to power 4.8 million homes. Although the large upfront capital costs and environmental concerns make new dams difficult to permit, finance, and build, existing dams have already overcome many of these impediments and are a viable option for new hydropower. They have big potential to produce clean energy, but more funding is needed.
Without an increase in new hydroelectric generation and pumped storage hydropower, the United States will be unable to meet its aggressive green energy goals. Hydropower can help us meet those goals. The many benefits of hydropower include:
- Hydropower supports cleaner communities. Throughout the country, hydropower operators are working with communities to protect wildlife, enhance environmental protections, and enhance the health and vitality of our rivers and lakes and the aquatic life that resides within them.
- Hydropower is a major job creator. The U.S. hydropower industry employs approximately 66,000 workers.
- Hydropower is key to a dependable, clean energy future.
- It is proven and reliable. Because it can quickly go from zero power to maximum output, it provides essential backup, especially for variable wind and solar generation, as well as peaking power for high-load periods.
- It provides energy storage. Pumped storage hydropower is America’s water battery, representing 93% of the nation’s energy storage.
While it is often overlooked by other, newer sources of clean energy, hydropower is nonetheless a vital component of a cleaner, renewable energy future. So, in celebration of National Hydropower Day, I encourage all of you to engage local, state, and federal representatives to support legislation that addresses America’s clean energy needs.