Hydroelectric, Renewables

Hydropower Continues to Brighten U.S. Renewable Energy

Issue 7 and Volume 119.

By Carl Atkinson, P.E., Voith Hydro

In April, hundreds from the world of water power gathered in Washington, D.C. for the National Hydropower Association’s annual conference. Across town, some of hydropower’s strongest champions were introducing legislation that could expand deployment of America’s most abundant renewable resource.

A renewed focus on hydropower has become commonplace over the last several years. The lawmakers are building on 2013 landmark laws that sought to streamline the licensing process for small hydropower projects. Though a significant achievement, we are pleased hydropower’s allies in Congress have realized that these laws were only the first steps for expanded hydropower production.

It’s not just Congress that’s paying attention. Earlier this year, the Departments of Energy and Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers renewed their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for hydropower, which has led to unprecedented coordination between the agencies key to federal hydropower development. With roughly half of the installed US hydropower capacity under federal control, this renewal continues to encourage focus and attention on this important part of the U.S. renewable energy portfolio.

The federal government’s focus on hydropower mirrors what private industry is already accomplishing. Interest in small hydropower has increased, due to its tremendous potential along with an improved regulatory landscape. With 65,000 MW of untapped hydropower potential in the U.S., current owners and new project developers are interested in a variety of hydro projects.

Existing facilities are part of the equation, too. As turbines and generators reach and exceed their design life, more efficient, higher-powered, and environmentally-friendly options are now available. In the next 10 years, approximately 250 FERC licenses representing over 11,000 MW of installed capacity will be up for relicensing, providing many hydro operators the opportunity to make these enhancements.

Considering the stakes, improving the regulatory process is a necessity. Any disincentive to license or relicense hydropower could mean less renewable energy for our electric grid, and a missed opportunity to boost output and improve the environmental performance at hydropower facilities.

Like most businesses, power producers want regulatory certainty when they enter into long term contracts and investments. Unfortunately, not only is the FERC licensing process long and costly, it lacks a set timeframe. By some measures, it takes longer to license hydropower than a nuclear facility. Setting a more certain time frame will encourage and provide certainty for new investment.

Expanding hydropower production is essential to our national energy needs. On a near weekly basis, a coal-fired generating unit in the United States is permanently retired due to increasing environmental performance requirements. Yet demand for energy continues to grow. This baseload power must be replaced, and it often must be replaced with clean and renewable sources.

When choosing hydropower, an operator gets benefits far beyond power generation. In many cases, a hydropower facility is supporting wind and solar by providing baseload power in times of low generation. Add these benefits to hydropower’s other features – flood control, irrigation, recreational opportunities, improved navigability – and continued investment in America’s largest renewable energy source becomes even more attractive.

At Voith Hydro, our commitment to hydropower spans over 135 years. Many of our product offerings are designed to boost the already strong environmental performance of hydropower facilities. For instance, our aerating runners improve the dissolved oxygen content downstream from hydropower facilities, while fish-friendly turbines significantly improve fish passage through dams, approaching 100 percent survival rates.

Our newest product is essentially plug-and-play hydro, and can provide power on irrigation canals, small rivers and creeks, spillways, and other infrastructure previously determined unfeasible for hydropower production.

Of course, challenges remain. Low natural gas prices have led to more gas-fired plants. Additionally, while hydropower does enjoy strong bipartisan support, further regulatory reforms are far from a guarantee in a Congress tasked with addressing a multitude of issues. However, no other source of energy can match both hydropower’s cost competitiveness and its environmental benefits.

The industry has much to be excited about. But just like the turbines we manufacture that can last 50 years or longer, hydropower measures success in decades. It is encouraging to see that the groundwork is being laid to ensure hydropower’s future success.