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Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com. 

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90,000 Dams In America: Just 2,500 Produce Hydropower

  • Hydropower represents about 7% of total U.S. electricity generation.
  • Hydropower powers an estimated 30 million homes.
  • Tens of thousands of outdated dams are negatively impacting ecology and public safety.
  • Research shows that non-powered dams could produce enough power for 9 to 12 million homes.

There will not likely be any progress towards net-zero climate goals without hydropower, which could fast become a favorite investment theme–even more so amid a Russian war on Ukraine that has sent oil prices to record highs, with a supply shock looming. 

But back in the United States, the massive potential of hydropower has been stymied by environmental contradictions. 

For decades, environmentalists and dam builders in the United States have been locked in a bitter battle. There’s no denying the fact that America’s 90,000 dams serve a very important purpose: they store water, provide renewable energy and prevent floods. In the U.S., hydropower currently accounts for 37% of total U.S. renewable electricity generation and about 7% of total U.S. electricity generation; provides over 90 percent of America’s long-duration energy storage, and powers an estimated 30 million homes. 

Unfortunately, there are tens of thousands of outdated, obsolete dams nationwide whose impacts to ecology or public safety outweigh the benefits they provide. These structures are known to worsen the impact of climate change by releasing greenhouse gasses and destroying carbon sinks in wetlands and oceans; they destroy habitats,  increase sea levels, and displace poor communities. For instance, dam construction on the Snake River has led to a massive fish kill and decimated salmon and steelhead runs

The golden era of dam building swept the nation in the 1940s and 1950s, impounding some of the most important rivers of the American west. But environmentalists have lately been winning a good deal, with the U.S. now leading the movement to decommission dams. According to “Free Rivers: The State of Dam Removal in the U.S.,” report by American Rivers, 57 dams were removed in 2021, reconnecting more than 2,131 miles of rivers. American Rivers has been advocating for dam removals on environmental grounds. A total of 1,951 dams have already been removed nationwide, roughly equal to 2% of the more than 90,000 dams inventoried by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But make no mistake about it: hydropower remains a very integral part of the U.S. energy ecosystem. You can clearly tell that by President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law, which puts $2.5 billion toward projects including upgrades at existing structures for hydropower and energy storage as well as dam removals.

We do recognize that (hydropower) is probably going to play some role in the transition. It’s certainly better than coal,” Ted Illston of American Rivers has conceded.

To set the record straight, lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for run-of-river and pumped storage hydropower facilities are the lowest of any energy resource, according to a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even when you factor in hydropower with reservoirs, hydropower is still slightly lower than solar energy.

And some states are willing to go against the grain by increasing their hydropower output. In southwestern Pennsylvania, eight locks and dams that for decades helped barges move goods along the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers will in a few years also generate enough power for 75,000 homes.

Retrofitting dams

Hydropower, which uses flowing water to spin turbines connected to generators, hasn’t received as much federal funding and tax incentives as wind and solar, but sees room for growth. Of the country’s 90,000 dams in the country, only 2,500 produce power. According to an estimate by the Electric Power Supply Association based on federal data from 2012, non-powered dams could produce enough power for 9 to 12 million homes.

Rye Development, a Boston-based hydropower company, is retrofitting the dams in southwestern Pennsylvania with turbines to generate electricity. The retrofits are expected to be operational as early as 2025. The company says the upgraded structures will also limit damage to the rivers’ water quality and fish.

To get certified, companies must show their structures meet protections for endangered species, cultural and historical uses of rivers, passage for fish, and recreational areas. In Pennsylvania, Rye consulted with the Low Impact Hydropower Institute early in its process and is among a small number of companies seeking certification from the group. The group says its environmental standards are often stricter than state or federal guidelines.

Rye says its dams in Pennsylvania will include structures to support fish migration. It is also building a fishing pier since federal regulators require hydropower producers to support recreation on river systems. 

On a recently certified dam in West Virginia on the Ohio River, for example, dissolved oxygen levels were found to meet or exceed state standards in a 5-year study. In some states, dams certified by the organization qualify for green-energy programs.

The hydropower industry and conservation groups will continue clashing over dams. Part of the challenge is that most dams in the U.S. were built more than half a century ago. The risk of dam collapses has fueled demolitions in recent years, with more than 40% of the country’s nearly 2,000 dam removals in the past century happening in the last decade. Some are also torn down largely for environmental reasons. Last month, federal regulators moved a step closer to approving what would be the largest dam demolition in U.S. history. Removal of the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River near the Oregon-California border would help save the river’s salmon and other fish species that can’t reach breeding habitats because of the structures.

But in the transition to low-carbon energy, it’s going to be hard for the U.S. to completely swear off dams and hydropower.

It’s very easy for individual river systems to get lost in the message of climate change and the need for renewable energy,” Shannon Ames, executive director of the Low Impact Hydropower Institute, which grades hydropower dams based on environmental criteria, has told Associated Press.

With persisting drought affecting hydropower production west of the Mississippi River, the industry has a more direct path to expansion in eastern states.

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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