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June 2, 2012

‘Low-Impact’ Hydroelectricity: A Flirt with Political Correctness?

June 2, 2012
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“Hydroelectric dams alter riparian ecosystems profoundly. Birds fly into windmills. Geothermal and biomass plants are not emission free. Even solar generation is not beyond criticism. Yet environmentalists have become nearly as dependent on a steady supply of electrical energy as everyone else. What, then, is an environmentalist to do?”

–       Rich Ferguson, “Electric Industry Restructuring and Environmental Stewardship,” The Electricity Journal, July 1999, p. 27.

The supply-side strategy of critics of fossil fuels ends almost where it begins. It is composed of wind power, on-grid solar power, and not much more.[1] Nuclear power, the one mass alternative to carbon-based energy for electricity, has been repeatedly rejected by the mainstream “DC” environmentalists. Biofuels for the transportation market, led by ethanol, has fallen into disfavor because of life-cycle environmental costs.

Politically-correct energy amounts today in the U.S. to about two percent of total U.S. energy usage and three percent of electricity generation.

One renewable, air-emission-free alternative for electricity generation is hydropower, a very mature energy resource.[2] But is hydro “politically correct”?

Such is hardly an idle question given that the Interior Department is trying to decide whether to decommission 155 MW of capacity on four dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon. Power customers of PacificCorp are already paying a 2 percent surcharge to fund the probable decommissioning.

Accepted—Then Rejected

As late as in the 1980s, hydro was cited if not lauded for its air-emission-free attributes by the environmental lobby. “Hydropower alone effectively displaces 578 million tons of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants each year, equivalent to over 10 percent of total 1987 emissions from fossil fuels,” noted Cynthia Shea of the Worldwatch Institute.[3]

But in the same decade, other environmental tradeoffs with hydro caused pause. “Small hydro, once the darling of clean-energy advocates, fell out of favor when environmentalists realized it meant building dams,” noted William Tucker. “Local groups usually oppose those facilities and environmental groups no longer promote them in their literature.”[4]

Energy journalist Daniel Kaplan writing in 1992 explored the reversal:

A strange thing happened to hydropower on its way to the sustainable energy ball: the party’s environmentalist hosts withdrew their invitation. Long a favorite of sustainable energy groups opposed to more traditional fuels . . . in the last 10 years environmentalists have turned on hydropower. . . .  Suddenly hydro is being mentioned in the same breath with coal, oil and nuclear–precisely the fuels hydro, touted early on as an environmentally benign energy source, was to replace. Today environmentalists talk of ‘non-hydro renewables’ like wind, solar and biomass.[5]

Jonathan Adler similarly noted:

In the late 1970s, hydropower was hailed as a clean, renewable source of power.  Although environmental groups opposed many large dam projects, hydropower was praised as the wave of the future.  No longer.  Today hydropower is conspicuously absent from most lists of ‘green’ power. . . .   Talk of new hydro projects, whether here or abroad, is verboten in environmental circles.[6]

Cheap Energy: Per Se Bad?

Part of the reversal came from an ‘energy-is-bad,’ and ‘less energy/higher prices/more conservation undertow. Stated one environmentalist back in 1981:

Bargain-basement pricing of hydroelectricity at a time of rising energy costs sent the wrong signal to the consumer, encouraging waste and creating a voracious demand for electricity when conservation, not production, is the best energy investment. . . .  The price of hydroelectric resources needs to reflect the fact that the world has entered a new energy era. [7]

Such brings to mind the infamous statement of Amory Lovins in 1977:

If you ask me, it’d be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.[8]

New Hope?

And so it was with some surprise that Stephen Lacey at the anti-fossil-fuel blogsite ClimateProgress resurrected the goodness of hydropower as a reason to extend the Production Tax Credit, a federal tax subsidy due to expire at the end of this year.

In “Congressional Uncertainty Threatens 12,000-30,000 MW of Possible Hydropower,” Lacey cites a recent report from Oak Ridge National Laboratory that identified more than 50,000 potential sites that could produce a megawatt or more with dams of several feet to 770 feet. In all, 12,000 MW of capacity could be built, adding 11 percent to existing hydro (and pump storage) capacity of 96 GW.

“Topping it all off, the Department of Interior recently issued an analysis showing that 268 MW of hydro capacity could be developed at waste water treatment facilities around the country.” With another 103 MW of wastewater conduit potential, “there’s still a lot of low-impact hydro available.” Lacey gives an environmentalist’s blessing:

Importantly, many of the monetary costs and environmental impacts of dam construction have already been incurred at NPDs [non-powered dams], so adding power to the existing dam structure can often be achieved at lower cost, with less risk, and in a shorter timeframe than development requiring new dam construction. The abundance, cost, and environmental favorability of NPDs, combined with the reliability and predictability of hydropower, make these dams a highly attractive source for expanding the nation’s renewable energy supply.

But, he adds, the expiration of the tax credit threatens this too-good-to-be-true addition to renewable, emission-free capacity: “The industry says this is already starting to stifle development of new, innovative projects designed to “re-power” facilities and add to our hydro generation.”

And guess what—federal overregulation is culpable too. “Another issue is permitting,” Lacey states. “In order to construct even the smallest projects, developers must work through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments, State Historic Preservation Departments, and many more.” He adds:

Each of these agencies has an important role to play individually — but the cumulative impact weighs down small hydro and makes projects prohibitively expensive. According to one small developer, federal and state permitting adds up to $2,000 per kilowatt for projects under 1 MW. That’s two thirds of the total installed cost of a 1 MW solar PV system.

This is the political season, and the scheduled expiration of the federal PTC can lead to a bit of (probably temporary) political correctness for hydropower. Still, it is a breath of fresh air to hear that “We have tens of gigawatts of hydro potential left to harness in this country, much of which can be done at existing facilities with minimal additional environmental impact.”


It is fair to label the purveyors of wind-and-solar as demand-side conservationists dressed in supply-side garb. For less supply means higher prices and more (forced) conservation. Such is called conservationism, the doctrine of less usage for its own sake via government intervention.

[1] Off-grid solar is really a free-market, not political, energy. It introduces electricity in remote locations where there is no plug-in option. As such, this starter energy does not displace emissions for environmental benefit. In fact, off-grid solar is the bridge fuel to carbon-based energy as virgin areas graduate to diesel generators for more electricity at less cost and more reliability.

[2] “It was during the nineteenth century that hydropower became a source of electricity as well as of mechanical power.  In 1820, the French engineer Benoit Fourneyron invented the turbine.  The turbine was to the waterwheel what the propeller was to the side paddle—a submersible, compact and more efficient machine for energy exchange.” Daniel Deudney, “Rivers of Energy: The Hydropower Potential,” Worldwatch Paper 44, Worldwatch Institute, June 1981, p. 7.

[3] Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy:  Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 6.

[4] William Tucker, “California Unplugged,” The American Spectator, April 2001, p. 34.

[5] Daniel Kaplan, “Is the Green Promise of Hydro Fading to Brown?” Energy Daily, December 7, 1992, p. 1.

[6] Jonathan Adler, “The Problem with Wind Power,” The Weekly Standard, October 25, 1999, p. 18.

[7] Daniel Deudney, “Rivers of Energy:  The Hydropower Potential,” Worldwatch Paper 44, Worldwatch Institute, June 1981, pp. 41-42.

[8] Amory Lovins in “The Mother Earth – Playboy Interview,” Nov/Dec 1977, p. 22. Lovins was hardly alone in this less-is-more view of energy. Stated Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman: “Power is much too cheap.  It should certainly be made more expensive and perhaps rationed, in order to reduce its frivolous use.” Ehrlich and Harriman, How To Be a Survivor (Rivercity, Mass:  Rivercity Press, 1971, 1975), p. 72.


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