After the events of COP21, the National Hydropower Association’s (NHA) goal to expand hydropower in America over the next few decades seems especially important. The existing hydro fleet was constructed over the course of an entire century and constitutes the longest-lived energy facilities in the world.
NHA’s goal is to double hydropower by adding 60 GW of capacity by 2030 which will produce an additional 300 billion kWhs of electricity each year, without building a single new dam. Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz agrees, stating, “Hydropower can double its contributions by the year 2030. We have to pick up the covers off of this hidden renewable that’s right in front of our eyes and continues to have significant potential.”
Recent discussions between the American Hydropower Association and the Department of Energy have resulted in a plan to expand hydropower mainly by using existing non-powered dams for new power and pumped hydro storage. Almost 85% of America’s low-carbon energy sources come from hydropower (20%) and nuclear power (63%), which together avoid almost a billion tons of CO2 emissions each year. If we are to achieve any of the low-carbon goals we have set out for 2030 and beyond, hydropower must increase significantly.
To date, there are about 2,200 hydroelectric plants nationwide totaling 80 GW of capacity, generating 7% of our electricity. About 70% of them are less than 10 MW in size, and half are privately-owned. While the Pacific Northwest leads the nation in installed capacity, the Northeast has the highest concentration of facilities, or number of dams. Of the 80,000 dams nationwide, only 3% are equipped to produce power. Converting dams into sources of generation however requires a complex and lengthy regulatory process that many consider to be antiquated and unnecessarily burdensome. Both the House and Senate recognize that the permitting process must be modified if hydropower capacity is to increase. However, until then, hydropower’s potential will remain frustrated.