Truman National Security Project

Hydro’s long history, and bright future, bode well for American energy independence

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From Canada to California and across the county, hydropower is an economical and reliable renewable resource that provides low-cost power and facilitates local economic development.

More than 50 years ago, our dams were built with the best engineering and construction standards in the world. Today, our nation’s dams — and their potential contribution to creating a clean energy economy — are largely forgotten and in disrepair. Yet, dams have the opportunity to provide more renewable energy to tens of millions of Americans.

According to the recently published American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the grade for dams is close to a failing mark, averaging “D’s” thanks to delayed maintenance and underinvestment. In less than a decade, three-quarters of the total dams in the United States will be more than a half-century old. With some smart investments in their improvement, they could be a significant source of power for decades to come.

Many forget that hydropower (not solar or wind) is the country’s top renewable energy source, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the nation’s renewable electricity generation and 7 percent of the total generation. But major rehabilitation and refurbishment of existing hydro infrastructure is needed, so that hydropower can continue to contribute to the clean energy economy as the most reliable renewable resource.

Of course, there are many ideological environmental and activist groups that oppose hydropower, but they are misguided. Dam designers and operators engage stakeholders early in the planning process and their input is incorporated in the project from the beginning.

Also, the hydropower industry itself is doing its part to support investment in new technologies and project improvements by developing a new generation of turbines that improve fish passage, generate more power, utilize water more efficiently and improve the oxygen content of the water released downstream of a facility.

As we continue to innovate and find ways to power our nation with clean energy, our national discussion about an energy plan must include hydropower, which is a clean, renewable, affordable and sustainable energy source. The U.S. hydropower industry currently employs 300,000 workers and is supported by more than 2,500 companies across the country. These companies operate in nearly every state, are part of the industry’s supply chain and have the potential to create 1.1 million more jobs by 2025, according to the National Hydropower Association.

And unlike wind and solar, much of that growth does not require the creation of new infrastructure. Powering some of the nation’s non-powered dams offers an opportunity to generate more reliable, emissions-free energy.

Hydropower, and specifically pumped storage, is also superior for providing storage to help integrate renewables and is a strategic asset that provides more flexible generation and energy security. Pumped storage is the only viable utility scale storage solution and consists of pumping or generating by moving energy in the form of water through a powerhouse between an upper and lower reservoir.

The U.S. currently has the equivalent of more than 10 Hoover dams of pumped storage capacity operating across the nation and at least 26 Hoover dams-worth of pumped storage projects in various stages of permitting. With the build-out of several of these proposed facilities, this innovative technological marvel complements and is key for balancing existing and future intermittent resources like wind and solar.

As a Iraq War veteran working in the hydropower industry, I often think about the things that have and can continue to create true strength and leadership for our country. We must be willing to plant seeds now for a harvest that future generations will rely on. With hydropower as a historical example, America’s commitment to innovation is what grew our economy into the most robust on the planet. If we abandon modernization investments into this reliable renewable energy source, we also hurt our economy in the long run.

Nate Sandvig is a Truman Project Defense Council Member. This post originally appeared in Sustainable Business Oregon.