Americans are becoming more concerned about climate change and environmental quality, and many want to see an increase in renewable energy sources. Hydropower has been an important source of renewable energy in the United States for over a century. About six percent of U.S. electricity came from hydropower in 2014, but the country has an untapped infrastructure of non-powered dams and conduits that could be retrofitted with hydroelectric turbines to increase renewable energy production. The Institute of Political Economy (IPE) at Utah State University explored the reliability of hydropower in the Reliability of Renewable Energy: Hydro report. IPE found that hydropower is a reliable source of electricity, but unnecessary and overly burdensome government regulations often limit access to this clean energy source.



Hydropower is more efcient than many other energy sources and can run consistently with little maintenance, making it an ideal source of baseload power. Most hydropower plants can quickly change the level of water flowing through their turbines to adjust electrical output. This output flexibility allows hydropower to meet changes in electricity demand better than many other energy sources.

Future growth in large-scale hydropower generation is unlikely because public pressure discourages large dam construction and most ideal large-scale dam sites are already used. While existing large-scale hydropower will continue to provide clean energy at a low cost to American consumers, effciency improvements have the potential to raise large-scale hydropower production by up to 50 percent.

Installing turbines on existing non-powered dams and conduits, including irrigation canals and municipal water pipelines, can increase renewable electricity generation. A study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory found 54,000 non-powered dams in the U.S. that could be converted to hydroelectric facilities, with the potential to generate up to 12 gigawatts of new energy capacity. Retrofitting existing dams and conduits takes advantage of unused energy resources. The retrofitting process itself has virtually no additional environmental impacts other than the possibility of increased fish mortality. Developers can mitigate this increase in fish mortality by selecting turbine designs that minimize local fish deaths.


Hydropower developers are discouraged from investing in hydropower because of a heavy regulatory burden. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commision (FERC) stifles hydropower development through a complex and costly licensing process. The process of obtaining a hydropower license from FERC is inconsistent, unpredictable, and often takes more than the intended maximum of five years. FERC’s convoluted licensing process makes hydropower less economical, despite recent legislation intended to encourage hydroelectric development.

Burdensome regulations provoked the Hydropower Regulatory Effciency Act (HREA) of 2013. This law was intended to make small-scale hydropower development easier by exempting certain projects from the licensing process. In the two years since the HREA became law, it has done little to spur the growth of small hydropower projects. Many hydropower projects are still not economical because the law only addresses one small part of the convoluted regulatory structure. Since the HREA’s passage, only 58 small hydropower conduit-based projects have applied for the licensing exemption. The low number of applications suggests that the HREA does not adequately reduce the regulatory burden that discourages hydropower development.


Small hydropower can be a reliable, cost efective, and environmentally friendly way to increase renewable energy production in the United States. Despite small hydropower’s potential to augment U.S. energy production, federal regulations continue to hinder its growth. Hydropower will not reach its full potential while excessive federal regulatory barriers stand in the way.