Is Damming Every River in the US Really a Clean Energy Solution?

Back to the Future

65.5 Gigawatts of energy of new hydropower on our rivers? Hair-raising indeed.

The Department of Energy just published a report titled the “New Stream-reach Development Assessment: A Comprehensive Assessment of Hydropower Energy Potential in the United States.” This new report estimated the technical hydropower potential of the USA. The Department of Energy scientists did what is essentially a math problem to calculate energy density: they took several GIS layers, runoff data, and gradient, and calculated how much energy you could get if you harnessed all of the waterpower potential in the USA. Oak Ridge National Labs did the study, and I’m confident that their technical analysis is sound.

The report’s authors calculated that there is 65.5 GW of hydropower potential on rivers across America. They go on to acknowledge in the report that developing all 65.5 GW of this power is not feasible, saying, for example “These potential high-energy-density areas should be regarded as worthy of more detailed site-by-site evaluation by engineering and environmental professionals; not all areas identified in this assessment will be practical or feasible to develop for various reasons.” In other words: sure, we could get a lot of hydropower if we dammed every river in America, but everyone knows that’s neither realistic nor a good idea. This isn’t exactly news.

That’s why American Rivers and our members were surprised to see Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz make a speech to the National Hydropower Association where he cited this report and said that there’s 65.5 GW of clean, renewable hydropower just waiting to be tapped. Secretary Moniz went on to say that based on this report, the Department of Energy has set a goal of doubling the nation’s hydropower capacity. He claimed that developing this hydropower is part of the President’s “all of the above energy strategy.” In other words, Secretary Moniz apparently ignored what the report had to say about the lack of economic or environmental feasibility for many of these sites. Instead, he seems to be saying that the President’s vision for America’s energy future involves damming nearly every reach of undammed river in the country.

That’s troubling. It also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that the Obama Administration, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in removing outdated dams and restoring rivers, would be proposing to go back and re-dam them.

We hope that’s not the case. Hopefully Secretary Moniz has had a chance to review the details of the report and has come to the conclusion that there’s no way that you could really accomplish what he seemed to suggest at the hydropower industry’s conference.

Here’s why it would be impossible. The only way you could accomplish the goal Secretary Moniz laid out in his speech based on this report would be to:

  • Repeal the Clean Water Act as it applies to hydropower projects.
  • Waive the Endangered Species Act as it applies to hydropower projects.
  • Repeal the McCarran Act and change over a century of water law to allow the federal government to seize privately held water rights in the west to put them towards hydropower generation instead of whatever they are currently being used for (for example, providing drinking water to cities like Denver).
  • Allow private developers to use Federal hydropower licenses to seize via eminent domain the countless acres that would be inundated by all of these new dams.
  • Waive the Federal Power Act’s fish passage requirements.
  • Rebuild facilities that the federal government has already paid to remove, like the dams on the Penobscot River that just came down.
  • And last, but perhaps most disturbing of all, dam nearly every river in the country.

The Department of Energy has helpfully published information about each river reach included in the report, so you can see exactly what rivers would have to be dammed in order to meet Secretary Moniz’s goal.

Join the Conversation

On Monday, May 19, at 10:00 am PT / 1:00 pm, Secretary Moniz and EPA Administrator McCarthy are holding a White House Climate chat with Grist to talk about the President’s plan for action on climate. Check to see if your local river is on the Department of Energy’s list, and ask the Energy Secretary if he really meant to say that it is the President’s plan to dam every river in America, seize water and land by eminent domain, and rebuild dams where your tax dollars were spent to remove them and restore rivers. You may also want to ask Administrator McCarthy if she supports actions, like waiving the Clean Water Act, which would be necessary to make this happen.

Do you have questions for Secretary Moniz and Administrator McCarthy?

You can submit them in the comments or, if you’re on Twitter, tweet them using the #WHClimateChat hashtag. Or help us get these questions in front of the Grist moderator by tweeting these:

Is hydro a clean solution to #climate when it means damming rivers important for fish, wildlife & recreation? #WHClimateChat

Why’s @Energy saying 65.5GW of new hydro available when that’s only doable if u ignore env protections? #WHClimateChat

Is it really the Presidents #Climate plan to dam every US river, seize water/land & rebuild dams? #WHClimateChat

Does President’s @energy plan really include waiving CleanWaterAct as it applies to hydropower projects? #WHClimateChat

Does @GinaEPA support actions necessary to make @Energy’s hydro plan happen, like waiving CleanWaterAct? #WHClimateChat

We’re looking forward to the chat on Monday to hear their answers to these questions.

3 Responses to “Is Damming Every River in the US Really a Clean Energy Solution?”

Linda Heron

Your list of impossible reasons has mostly been achieved by the Harper government in Canada to move the energy portfolio forward – the following have either been repealed or gutted – Fisheries Act (gutted), Navigable Waters Protection Act (only 1% of Canadian rivers protected now), and Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (repealed). Many of the other acts and regulations are just ignored and projects move forward – the whole process is just a sham.

The provincial governments are no better – the Ontario government has included hydroelectric under the Green Energy file and offers 50% peaking incentives to produce power during peak demand hours. Crown land is signed over to private corporations by way of leases with 40 year Feed-in-Tariff contracts, and proponents get paid whether the power is needed or not.

Don’t underestimate the power of corporations to influence government.

Katherine Evatt

Excellent article, but you left out one important law that would also have to be repealed altogether: The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The report even shows hydropower potential in California’s national parks!

C. Fischer

There has got to be a way to keep politicians out of science and engineering development! Look at the lack of logic, and the homework that has not been done on the part of politicians who are appointed to be rubber stamps. The level of incompetence continues to astound me. Thanks for the good article!!! Maybe you’ve just saved us some tax dollars!