Why Hydropower Should be Included in Renewable and
Sustainable Energy Initiatives
Linda Church Ciocci, Executive Director, National
As the many power, environmental and societal benefits
of the hydropower resource are being debated in both
national and international forums, the National Hydropower
Association (NHA) offers twelve reasons why hydropower
should be included in national and international renewable
and sustainable energy initiatives. In fact, excluding
hydropower would only shortchange both the national
and global communities.
Excluding hydro would unnecessarily limit the tools
available to policymakers as they wrestle with air
pollution, a major health concern, and carbon emissions,
a major contributor to global warming. Those advocating
for a thoughtful, long-term and sustainable approach
to dealing with these and other complex environmental
issues should support hydropower and its many benefits.
In short, we need hydropower more than ever.
12 REASONS TO INCLUDE HYDROPOWER IN RENEWABLE
1) HYDROPOWER IS “RENEWABLE”
First and foremost, hydropower should be included
in renewable energy policies because it is a renewable
resource. Hydropower, by definition, is a renewable
resource because it is produced from elemental, natural
and recurrent resources. Hydropower converts rainfall
(and snowfall) into energy.
Like wind, solar and geothermal, hydropower’s
“fuel” is essentially infinite and is
not depleted during the production of electricity.
Hydropower facilities simply harness the natural energy
of flowing and falling water to generate electricity.
Therefore, all hydropower projects – small or
large, run-of-river or with storage reservoirs –
should be considered “renewable.”
2) HYDROPOWER HELPS IMPROVE THE AIR WE BREATHE
Since hydropower projects use water to generate electricity,
they do not produce air pollution, which, among other
things, causes considerable human health problems.
Significant quantities of harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx),
sulfur dioxide (SO2), mercury, lead and other fine
particulates are avoided through the use of hydropower
The health problems associated with air pollution,
most notably respiratory and cardiovascular ailments,
would be substantially worse if hydropower facilities
were not used to generate electricity. Simply put,
hydropower provides major environmental benefits in
terms of fighting air pollution. Relying more on hydropower
to generate electricity would only lessen the air
pollution problems which are increasingly becoming
an issue for our society.
3) HYDROPOWER HELPS FIGHT GLOBAL WARMING
The United States is responsible for approximately
25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2)
emissions, making it the largest CO2-producing nation
in the world. The use of hydropower, however, avoids
the release of a tremendous amount of CO2, the primary
cause of global warming. In fact, NHA estimates that
U.S. hydropower generation in 2002 avoided 130 million
metric tons of carbon.
Put another way, the carbon emissions avoided by
U.S. hydropower generation is equivalent to removing
approximately 40 percent of the vehicles from U.S.
roadways. What’s more, if the United States
developed the 21,000 megawatts of undeveloped hydropower
potential at existing dams identified by the Department
of Energy (DOE), the U.S. could avoid an additional
42 million metric tons of CO2, clearly a significant
contribution to the fight against global warming.
Finally, recent studies have shown that hydropower
reservoirs can in fact act as “carbon sinks,”
helping further reduce the impacts of carbon on our
atmosphere by trapping it in the reservoir or by fixing
it into less harmful compounds. Hydro’s role
in reducing global warming needs to be taken into
account as we develop broad energy policies and promote
new resource development.
4) HYDROPOWER IMPROVES ELECTRIC GRID STABILITY
The management of our electricity grid depends upon
fast, flexible generation sources to meet peak power
demands, maintain level system voltages and quickly
restore service after a blackout. Electricity generated
from hydropower can be placed on the grid faster than
any other energy source. Hydropower’s ability
to go from zero power to maximum output rapidly and
predictably makes it exceptionally good at meeting
changing loads and providing ancillary electrical
services that maintain the balance between electricity
supply and demand.
Because hydropower is generated within seconds of
when water begins rushing through its turbines, hydropower
is particularly adept at providing incremental bursts
of power. This is of great value to electric power
grid operators and managers, which is why they often
rely on hydropower’s speed and flexibility to
meet moment-by-moment fluctuations in electric power
demand and to restore service after a blackout.
Hydropower’s “blackstart” capability
– the ability to restart generation without
an outside source of power – is also of great
value to the grid. Hydro’s blackstart role is
unique and has shown its great value time and time
again. Also, large hydro projects can at times withstand
large system disruptions. Other types of power plants
are not equipped to do so and will trip off-line or
choose to shut down during major disruptive events.
Due to its ability to support the electric power grid,
power from hydroelectric facilities is indeed unique.
5) HYDRO SUPPORTS ENERGY SECURITY, ENERGY INDEPENDENCE
AND PRICE STABILITY
Water from rivers that is used for hydropower production
is a domestic resource. What’s more, water is
a resource that is not subject to market fluctuations
or withholding of supply, unlike natural gas or oil.
Also, unlike other renewable resources, hydro is not
an intermittent technology. Moreover, hydropower is
the only large-scale renewable source of electricity
that helps optimize the use of thermal plants. Again,
hydro shows unique value.
More important, there is a large amount of domestic
hydro capacity waiting to be developed, which will
only lessen our dependence on foreign and fossil sources
of energy and help further stabilize electricity prices.
There is also tremendous potential for new hydro development
6) HYDRO IS ENERGY-EFFICIENT AND COST-EFFECTIVE
Hydropower is the most efficient generating resource
in converting mechanical energy to electrical energy
– with an efficiency rate frequently exceeding
90 percent – and it is improving. Further, hydro’s
operational costs are low and predictable since there
are no fuels to find, transport, and burn. Once its
capital costs are recovered or ameliorated, hydropower
is the most affordable energy source in use today.
7) HYDRO PROVIDES SIGNIFICANT PUBLIC BENEFITS
Unlike other generation resources, hydropower provides
a wide range of non-power benefits including recreation,
flood control, water supply, navigation and irrigation.
Hydro projects are truly multi-use projects that provide
benefits to a wide range of people. For example, even
very small hydro plants often include recreational
amenities such as boating areas, fishing platforms,
picnic grounds and hiking trails that help enhance
the quality of life for residents of local communities.
In fact, hydropower projects in the U.S., in terms
of recreation, provide over 47,000 miles of shoreline
with over 2,000 water access sites; over 28,000 tent/trailer/recreational
vehicle sites for camping, more than 1,100 miles of
trails and over 1,200 picnic areas. No other energy
source can match hydro’s multi-use attributes.
8) HYDROPOWER SUPPORTS THE DEVELOPMENT OF OTHER
As previously discussed, hydropower facilities provide
a unique value that allows them to respond immediately
to fluctuating electricity demand. While this flexibility
is critical in terms of grid stability, this unique
feature also makes it the most efficient and cost-effective
way to support the use of intermittent renewable sources
of power, such as wind or solar energy. While the
concept of blending renewable resources is relatively
new, it is clear hydropower can support the additional
development of other renewables and assist the nation
as it moves more rapidly to a greater reliance on
9) HYDROPOWER CONTRIBUTES TO STORAGE OF FRESH
AND SAFE WATER
Hydropower reservoirs harvest rainfall, thereby storing
and supplying fresh water for drinking and irrigation.
By storing and managing water, hydropower facilities
can protect aquifers from depletion and reduce our
vulnerability to costly and deadly floods. Hydro also
helps to manage irregular and unevenly distributed
supplies of water.
Hydro contributes to human welfare by: 1) ensuring
safe and sufficient drinking water and sanitation,
2) enhancing food security and self sufficiency by
making irrigation water available.1 Reservoirs
can also provide a stable source of water for industrial
development.2 Clearly, hydro has a role
in stabilizing our world’s water supply and
improving access to safe, clean water for people in
developing nations, a major initiative of the United
10) HYDRO PROJECTS ARE UPGRADEABLE, PROVIDING
POWER FOR TODAY AND TOMORROW
With an average life span of up to 100 years, hydropower
projects are clearly long-term investments that provide
benefits for generations and generations of people.
Hydropower projects, however, can also be easily upgraded
to take advantage of the latest power and environmental
technologies and to further their lifespan.
For example, there are over 4,300 megawatts of potential
new hydropower capacity in the United States at existing
hydropower projects. Known as incremental hydropower,
this generation potential can be quickly developed
by increasing the efficiency of projects or by adding
capacity to underdeveloped projects. There is enough
incremental hydropower capacity in the U.S. to meet
the electricity needs of the states of New Hampshire
and Vermont. Put another way, it is enough yearly
power for 1.4 million homes. Hydropower is a flexible
resource; one that is truly an energy source for future
11) NEW HYDROPOWER TECHNOLOGIES ARE EMERGING
Hydro is not only a large scale resource; small scale
hydropower is widely used throughout the world. In
addition, exciting new hydropower technologies are
being researched and developed – technologies
that will allow hydro to play a strong role in providing
distributed generation and provide energy to remote
communities. These technologies, such as free-flow
hydro, micro-hydro and irrigation hydro, also have
minimal, and in some cases, no environmental impact.
Small turbines can be added to aqueducts, public water
supply systems, storm systems and cooling ponds for
thermal plants. There is a wide variety of opportunities
and we are seeing small hydro being deployed today
in growing countries.
While hydro’s future will continue to rely
on traditional projects – large and small –
these new, emerging technologies will serve as a key
component to hydro’s future growth and will
expand our thinking and definition of hydropower.
In fact, early DOE estimates of the potential for
such development indicate that U.S. hydro production
could double. Hydro is a resource for the future that
possesses exciting new technologies and potential.
12) HYDRO HAS OVERWHELMING PUBLIC SUPPORT
A 2002 public opinion survey conducted in the United
States by Bisconti Research, Inc., a leading public
opinion researcher, found that 93 percent of the respondents
believe hydropower is an “important energy source
for the future.” What’s more, 89 percent
said they favor the use of hydropower as an energy
source. Additionally, 74 percent approved of the federal
government providing incentives for the development
of unused hydropower capacity.
In 2004, regional focus group polling conducted
by the same firm reconfirmed in detail the 2002 polling
numbers. It is clear that the American public appreciates
and supports hydropower as a clean energy option.
Policymakers should do the same.
1 International Hydropower Association
document titled Hydropower: A Key Tool for Sustainable
2 International Hydropower Association
document titled Hydropower: A Key Tool for Sustainable
I am pretty sure the environmentalists will
have some objections to present to this great
and dead-on article, like salmon fish bottlenecking.
I however am in favor of a combined use of hydropower
with other renewable energy resources, just
to push out imported energy resources and keep
the money in-house, generating jobs and tax
revenues for the local area's, instead of sending
the money to the middle-east.
The coal , nuke and oil&gas lobby will
probably have negative comments to put on the
table, but their concern$ are probably tied
to their intere$t$.
Linda, All the advantages you mention can be
wholeheartedly supported by most reasonable
people that can see both issues of the need
for power and the need to preserve our envirionment.
Certainly the salmon issues can be met with
a little American Ingenuity. Personally I love
the idea of hydro and I am curious as to what
the 'root cause' is behind the lack of development.
Why are the current owners, operators, managers,
caretakers, stakeholders not actively deveoloping
projects to harvest this 4300 MW?
Are the remaining, potential hydro projects
technically and economically marginal to where
the IRRs too low for private capital without
major subsidy? Are govt owned dams underdeveloped
because their managers are comfortable and not
interested in the additional growth or maximizing
output? Possibly disencentivized somehow?
Are corporate boards of directors too comfortable
and not seeking the same growth?
Are environmental and regulatory hurdles too
costly and risky?
Who can do the most to get this going?
Linda, What a timely article! I couldn't agree
more with your message. I have always been puzzled
when hydropower is not included as a renewable.
Politics, rather than engineering and common
sense weigh in all too often when hydro is the
topic. I am working with clients who are trying
to complete arrangements to install generation
within pressurized conduits whose primary purpose
is to supply water for municipal & industrial
use. I am painfully aware of the number of potential
conduit projects that go unrealized due to inability
to reach agreement within the "window of opportunity"
available as upgraded conduits are brought on
line. The amount of wasted clean hydropower
generation in these projects alone is truly
a tragic result of the highly politicized and
arduous regulatory process to receive approval
for these important additions to regional generation.
Keep speaking out! Best wishes, Nan