Hydroelectric power: clean, green and renewable

January 4, 2016
Drummond VanWall Olson 2014
Bill Drummond

Mid-West Electric Consumers Association Executive Director Bill Drummond recently wrote a letter to the editor on the importance of hydroelectric power and the benefits it provides. You can read his letter in its entirety below.

Hydroelectric power has come under recent criticism by some in the environmental community to prevent passage of bipartisan legislation aimed at speeding up the review process for licensing new hydroelectric projects. These opponents view the hydroelectric licensing process as the means by which to forestall the construction of any new dams. Unfortunately, the very reasons they give for opposing this legislation are exactly the reasons this country needs additional hydroelectric power.

Some of these opponents have argued that electricity generated at dams is not “green” because it impacts land use, fish and wildlife, and local economies. Without ever defining the term “green,” opponents are usually willing to acknowledge that hydroelectric generation is clean, renewable, and non-carbon emitting, and superior to some other forms of electric generation.

Dams provide multiple benefits that can include flood control, recreation, irrigation, navigation, municipal and industrial water, and, yes, hydroelectric generation. This multi-purpose aspect to building and operating dams is critical not only to the reasons dams are constructed, but also to the value they provide.

The flood damage prevented from the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program dams versus the pre-dam era are estimated to exceed $1 billion/year in today’s dollars. Tonnage transported on the Missouri from Sioux City to St. Louis went from 51,000 in 1951 to 3,261,000 in 1979. Lands irrigated by this project produce crops with a gross value of over $200 million. The almost 3,000 mega-watts of hydroelectric generating capacity not only prevented the need to construct an equal amount of thermal generation, but also allows for the integration into the grid of thousands of mega-watts of wind and solar generation. And more people recreate at Corps of Engineers’ facilities than at all of our national parks combined.

Construction and operation of dams definitely have fish and wildlife, land use, and societal impacts. Yet, electric ratepayers and the federal government have invested billions of dollars in mitigation, dam modifications, and fish and wildlife projects to mitigate for the dams’ impacts.

Finally, hydroelectric opponents appear to cavalierly ignore the fact that all electric generation systems have environmental impacts. Even the intermittent renewable wind and solar projects have significant land use, visual, and wildlife impacts, to say nothing of the thermal generation necessary to integrate wind and solar into the grid. The Minneapolis StarTribune’s article last year (http://www.startribune.com/emerging-solar-plants-scorch-birds-in-mid-air/271624061/ ) is an excellent description of a severe environmental impact from a “green” resource.

The current hydro licensing process is broken; it can take 10 years or more to obtain a federal license for a new hydroelectric facility. Two bills currently before Congress, H.R. 8 and S. 2012, would make rational changes to the hydro licensing process while maintaining the important environmental safeguards in the current licensing process.

With the current concern about carbon-based generation and the need to integrate additional intermittent renewable resources into the electric grid, taking aim at a clean, renewable, non-carbon emitting resource like hydropower stands the whole concept of “green” on its head.   Please contact your U.S. Senators and Representatives and ask them to support H.R. 8 and S. 2012 to remove barriers to the development of additional hydroelectric power.

Mid-West Electric Consumers Association promotes and protects the interest of federal power customers and their consumers within the Missouri River Basin. For more information, visit meconsumers.com.