Hydropower sits at the nexus of energy and water, enabling hydropower projects to be catalysts for positive change. If designed with both in mind, hydropower projects can increase reliable renewable generation and have positive benefits for river ecosystems and water users. Conventional approaches to hydropower did not always adequately consider the ecosystem impacts of large structures — but major shifts the hydropower industry are underway. On October 13, 2020, the hydropower industry and river community signed a historic Joint Statement of Collaboration to discuss ways to maximize hydropower’s climate benefits, while mitigating the environmental impact of conventional dams and supporting environmental restoration.
This collaboration between the hydro industry and the river community is timely – President-Elect Joe Biden has proposed a climate plan that would eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2035. So, how can we increase the role that hydropower plays as we transition to a zero-carbon grid, while supporting and enhancing the health of our nation’s rivers?
The Joint Statement called out three primary pathways:
- Rehabilitate powered and non-powered dams that need repairs;
- Retrofit (e.g., upgrade) powered dams with modern turbines and controls, add generation at non-powered dams, develop pumped storage projects, and enhance hydro operations for water supply, fish passage, flood mitigation and grid integration of wind and solar; and
- Remove dams that no longer provide benefits to society, have safety issues that cannot be cost-effectively mitigated, or have adverse environmental impacts that cannot be effectively addressed.
By focusing on the rehabilitation, retrofit, and removal of existing powered and non-powered U.S. dams (the “3 Rs”), plus new closed-loop pumped storage, the parties to the Joint Statement can help improve dam safety, flood protection, water security, and recreation, while also increasing reliable renewable energy generation and electricity storage capacity, better integrating variable solar and wind power, reducing environmental impacts, restoring and protecting rivers, and advancing U.S. economic development and job creation.
There are over 90,000 existing dams in the US, of which less than 2,500 produce hydropower. Applying the first two “Rs” is relatively intuitive — upgrade existing plants with modern technologies that enable better environmental and power performance, and selectively add power to existing non-power water infrastructure using modern technologies again that are environmentally sound.
The last “R” is one that is equally critical – and where an opportunity exists to turn problems into solutions! The way to do that is to take inspiration from the substantial community and track record that has developed around river restoration and invert the hydro design philosophy to focus on integrating hydropower function into projects aimed at restoring degraded streams and rivers to optimal ecological function and their natural, optimized state. We call this approach, which is applicable to all three R’s, Restoration Hydro – subscribe for upcoming articles which will dive deeper into this radical new approach to hydropower.
Taken all together, the objectives outlined in the Joint Statement are an ambitious, but achievable map of how we can work together to build climate resilient, sustainable water infrastructure and create jobs, while supporting healthy rivers and driving the transition to a zero carbon grid.