Whatever Happened to Hydro?

(Photo by John Gibbons on Unsplash)

By Ian Nemelka

Back in November of 2018, Democrat Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a preliminary outline of her new vision called the ‘Green New Deal’ and more recently published a draft proposed with Senator Jeff Merkley. The draft is meant to garner support for a new special house committee which will presumably create a larger and more detailed version of the future policy.

The goals contained in this draft, which includes a transition to 100% renewable energy as its flagship policy, are commendable as the most direct attempt to counter climate change. Although the usual suspects of solar and wind make a brief appearance in the draft, no mention is made of the seemingly forgotten and far more effective renewable; hydroelectric power.

Ignoring the irony of not including hydroelectric dams as part of anything coining the term ‘New Deal’, hydro’s exclusion in the ‘Green New Deal’ stems from a much larger, and almost cultural shift away from traditional power generation. Despite the fact that hydropower has provided the majority of renewable energy in the United States for decades, this trend continues. If hydro is so efficient and clean then why does it get such a bad wrap?

One of the criticisms of hydro stems from its massive environmental impact. Research at Strata shows that large scale hydropower requires the most land per megawatt of any reliable power sources. Critics also cite the potentially devastating effect large hydroelectric dams can have on local ecosystems and the unseen effects on those located further downstream. These concerns are valid, and should not be ignored. Quality should not necessarily be sacrificed for the sake of quality.

Recent, and innovative technological developments, however, have provided a route towards catching the benefits of hydropower, all while avoiding the potentially detrimental environmental impacts. Small, non-evasive, modular hydro turbines could be placed in already existing bodies of moving water with little to no negative environmental effects, and produce electricity at a high capacity factor. Despite these benefits, small hydro faces a stringent regulatory process that discourages its development.

The environmental impacts of large scale hydro must be considered, but so too must the impacts of solar and wind. According to a recent report released by Harvard,

. . . researchers find that the transition to wind or solar power in the United States would require five to 20 times more land area than previously thought, and if such large-scale wind farms were built, would warm average surface temperatures over the continental United States by 0.24 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a free lunch, each source of energy has costs and benefits that must all be held on equal footing. If this New Green Deal plans on having 100% renewables, hydro should be considered as at least part of the conversation.