Opinion

Hydropower: An Energy Source for the Past, Present, and Future

Last month, thousands of likeminded people gathered in a packed convention hall to celebrate a cause about which they care deeply. Some may think this phenomenon was exclusive to Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention, or the Republicans in Cleveland the week before. But it also occurred in Minnesota, where the largest hydropower convention in the world — HydroVision International — took place at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

HydroVision attendees had reason for their bullishness. No other source of energy combines hydropower’s affordability, contributions to combating climate change, and job creation. Far from an old and conventional source of energy, clean and renewable hydropower is constantly evolving and searching for new methods to squeeze energy out of the approximately 80,000 U.S. dams that do not produce power. In many cases, hydropower provides backup generation to support the development of intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar.

Nationally, hydropower’s benefits are unsurpassed. Reliance on hydropower reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 200 million metric tons each year — the equivalent of taking 38 million passenger cars off the road. All told, over 300,000 people work in the hydropower industry, and it also offers the lowest levelized cost of any source of energy. Indeed, states such as Oregon and Washington enjoy low energy prices in large part due to their reliance on hydropower.

What’s more, we expect hydropower’s importance to grow in the coming years.

At HydroVision, the Department of Energy released its long-awaited Hydropower Vision Report, a comprehensive analysis that provides a clear pathway to fully utilize our water resources. The report finds that we can boost hydropower generation by 50 GW by 2050 through a combination of new conventional hydropower, pumped storage, small hydro development, and emerging technologies such as Voith’s StreamDiver designed for deployment on many of the very streams previously thought unfeasible for hydropower.

Perhaps the only thing not in hydropower’s corner is the current regulatory climate.

Over the past year, Congress has debated and ultimately passed legislation that would streamline the regulatory process for hydropower — a process many believe is hindering its development. The Energy Policy Modernization Act would smooth licensing by declaring the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the lead agency in what can be a quite long and costly process that touches multiple jurisdictions, agencies, and even governments. Without a clear lead agency and defined time frames and deadlines, otherwise promising — but capital intensive — projects can languish for years on end.

While Congress has made significant progress on this legislation in a time otherwise noted for stalemate, House and Senate negotiators agreed to conference the bill only days prior to breaking for summer recess. With little time on the legislative clock before Congress adjourns before the November elections, Congress should make final passage of the Energy Policy Modernization Act one of its top priorities when it returns in September.

Make no mistake: Without regulatory reforms, our country will find it difficult to meet its growing energy needs. Nearly 500 hydropower projects, representing more than 15 percent of our current installed capacity, will be up for relicensing in the next 15 years. At the same time, numerous coal-fired power plants will be retired due to environmental regulations and global market forces. This energy will need to be replaced with clean and baseload power.

Every effort should be made to ensure hydropower lives up to its tremendous potential and delivers clean and affordable electricity to homes and businesses from coast to coast.

The atmosphere at HydroVision reminds us that we can and must do more to responsibly develop our precious water resources. I’m confident that when we gather again next summer, our excitement will be buoyed by increased hydropower deployment in all corners of the U.S.

Bob Gallo is president and CEO of York, Pa.-based Voith Hydro Inc. Voith is one of the world’s leading suppliers of hydroelectric equipment, technology, and services.