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Forgotten hydropower plots a comeback in Trump era

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As concerns over climate change and falling costs have advanced the cause of solar and wind energy, development of hydropower, which also contributes zero carbon emissions, had stalled until recently.

Advocates of hydropower, America’s largest and oldest, but often forgotten, renewable energy source, are carving a major place for themselves in the Trump administration, eyeing the upcoming debate over infrastructure as a way to push for changes that would speed the approvals of water-powered projects.

“Too often in the infrastructure debate, we focus on civic works, which is important, but we want to highlight where there is this opportunity on the power generation side as well, and that starts with hydropower,” Jeff Leahey, deputy executive director of the National Hydropower Association, told the Washington Examiner. “Any plan that doesn't address modernizing the licensing process for hydropower development misses an opportunity to create clean energy jobs and transform our nation's energy infrastructure.”

As concerns over climate change and falling costs have advanced the cause of solar and wind energy, development of hydropower, which also contributes zero carbon emissions, had stalled until recently.

Hydropower, electricity generated using the energy of moving water, usually from dams, represents about 6 to 7 percent of all U.S. electricity production.

But hydropower generation fell for four consecutive years before increasing in 2016, according to the Department of Energy, and less capacity has been added each decade since the 1970s, even as America’s dams age.

With little interest in building big new dams, hydro supporters have prioritized existing plants owned by the federal government. Advocates say a lengthy permitting process has crippled progress.

Only 3 percent — about 2,200 — of the nation’s 80,000 dams are equipped to produce electricity, an expensive endeavor involving installing turbines and other equipment.

Nearly half of America’s hydropower capacity is owned by the federal government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

More than 400 nonfederal projects, meanwhile, are due for relicensing by 2030. About half of U.S. hydropower plants are more than 50 years old, although they can live 100 years or more with the refurbishment of turbines and other equipment.

Yet, the National Hydropower Association says industry members are closing facilities rather than spending time and money renewing their permits, particularly small hydropower projects.

The group says it takes about 10 years to license a hydropower project, a process involving numerous participants, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and tribal entities.

“Without addressing these regulatory challenges, hydropower will continue to struggle to compete versus other energy options, particularly wind, solar, and natural gas, that can be permitted in half the time,” said John Devine, a past president of National Hydropower Association, in testimony Feb. 27 before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

The wind industry’s main trade group last year said it exceeded the generating capacity of hydropower for the first time, more than tripling its production since 2008. And solar is coming on fast as the fastest-growing power generating resource.

For wind and solar, the average permitting time is two to four years, the Department of Energy says.

President Trump’s infrastructure proposal focuses heavily on streamlining the permitting process. It does not contain a specific reference to hydropower, but supporters say speeding approvals for energy projects naturally fits Trump’s energy dominance agenda.

Desmarie Waterhouse, head of federal affairs for the American Public Power Association, wants to see a number of hydropower licensing reform bills that were proposed in the last Congress rolled into a comprehensive infrastructure bill.

“Our members like hydropower,” said Waterhouse, whose association represents 2,000 public utilities that provide energy to 49 million people across 49 states. “It's an important renewable energy source for our members. It just gets very difficult. It's so much money to get through this process, and drags out for so long. They are just so frustrated with the process.”

Hydropower enjoys bipartisan backing, with prominent boosters in the Northwest, where most hydro generation exists, headlined by Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, respectively.

Yet, environmentalists have rallied against hydropower in recent years, arguing that damming rivers may destroy or disrupt wildlife and other natural resources.

In addition to environmental concerns, critics say dams strain the communities around them, with big plants potentially harming tourism and property values.

And dams, opponents note, have faced cuts to power production in recent years, especially in California, which suffered a major drought. If there is less water stored in a dam's reservoir, there is less capacity to produce power.

Hydropower suffered a major defeat recently when regulators blocked the Northern Pass power line, which would import cheap hydroelectric power from Quebec to New England, a region that suffers from some of the most expensive energy prices in the country.

New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee rejected the project in February.

Eversource Energy, which proposed the 192-mile transmission line and claims it can power as many as 1.1 million homes, has said it will appeal the ruling.

Leaders in Massachusetts hope to rely on Northern Pass, and hydropower more broadly, to meet its aggressive clean energy goals.

In 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed bipartisan energy legislation authorizing the largest procurement of clean energy generation in Massachusetts’ history.

Matthew Beaton, the state’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, has called hydropower development “critical” in achieving its target.

“The Baker administration is committed to diversifying the commonwealth’s energy portfolio through a balanced approach, including the expansion of clean energy, and believes large-scale renewable resources like hydropower can play a critical role in our energy mix by delivering reliable, clean baseload generation to meet Massachusetts’ energy demands and greenhouse gas reduction targets,” Beaton told the Washington Examiner.

But hydropower supporters say Massachusetts is unique in valuing hydropower as a renewable energy source.

Leahey of the National Hydropower Association says states with renewable portfolio standards, about half the nation, often don’t count hydropower as fulfilling clean energy goals, and rely on wind and solar instead.

In addition, Leahey and others say, Congress has historically not provided hydropower the same production tax breaks that help wind and solar.

Hydropower is cheap to produce, mainly because once a dam has been built and the equipment installed, the water is free. However, it is more expensive and takes longer to develop.

“When you factor the site selection, permitting, design, environmental reviews, construction, and restoration costs into the production cost throughout the life of the project, it’s difficult for hydropower to get on par with natural gas,” said Brennan Smith, water power program manager at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a research outfit sponsored by the Energy Department.

Angling to compete in the clean energy mix, supporters of hydropower emphasize its unique attributes.

Unlike other renewables, hydropower is able to quickly ramp up as demand increases to keep the grid reliable. In this way, supporters consider it a “baseload” resource that reduces the use of high-emissions coal and natural gas, and eases the integration of variable wind and solar.

Hydropower also has energy storage capabilities.

The 42 hydropower-pumped storage plants in the U.S. make up 97 percent of the country’s energy storage, a fast-moving innovation meant to supplement the power grid as it relies more on intermittent renewables.

Pumped storage projects can hold in reserve excess water generated during times of low electricity and use the energy later when demand rises.

“I would encourage anyone who is focused on where generation will come from to allow for all of these technologies to be available and assess where hydropower has a role to play,” Smith said. “As the power system evolves and we get solar and wind coming online, you want flexibility going forward in reconfiguring the grid, and hydro has a big role there.”