Good intentions are no excuse for bad ideas

About a third of my morning commute is on a great bike trail that runs from the Maryland suburbs into DC. Yesterday morning, I came up behind a guy who was riding slowly without his hands and weaving all over the trail. When I passed him, I saw the problem:

He was talking on his cell phone.

It struck me later that this was a great metaphor for some of the proposals for new energy development that have come across my desk in the past few months. The good news is that a whole lot of people are genuinely concerned about energy use and climate change, and they want to do something about it. Some try to drive less, others try to build power plants that will generate electricity without carbon emissions. The bad news is that good intentions don’t necessarily prevent reckless and selfish behavior.

Take, for example, Community Hydro, a for-profit hydropower consulting firm that focuses on small hydropower development, particularly in Vermont. At first glance, this might sound like a reasonable idea: Vermont has a lot of small dams that no longer really serve a useful purpose. Those dams can generate electricity without significant carbon emissions. What could go wrong?

Plenty. Leaving aside for the moment hydropower’s serious environmental impacts, there’s a reason why many of these sites haven’t been developed before: they won’t make money. It ain’t cheap to build a hydropower project, let alone maintain it for decades. At a larger dam, this is less of a problem: owners can generate more than enough energy – and income – to cover these costs. Many small hydropower dams barely produce enough power to stay afloat. All it takes is one mishap – a failed turbine, flood damage, a utility that wants to renegotiate a power contract, or an unsafe dam that needs repairs – to send a small hydropower project deep into the red.

If – like Community Hydro – you happen to be in the business of consulting with people who want to develop hydropower projects, this presents a problem. With most of the good sites already taken, how can you make bad sites worth developing? Skimping on generating equipment won’t save you any money in the long run, and cutting corners on dam safety is (I hope) a non-starter. Instead, Community Hydro is following in the time-honored tradition of energy developers everywhere (the same tradition, I might add, that got us into this climate mess in the first place): change the rules for protecting the environment so that they don’t apply to your business.

What rules? Simple: for hydropower operators, water is money. Most hydropower dams need to divert some water from the river into a canal or pipe that leads to a powerhouse downstream – often miles downstream – in order to get the most power out of the river. For a river, however, this water is life: if a dam owner takes too much water, the river runs dry. Over the years, state and federal governments have passed a number of environmental laws that balance the need for power production with the need for rivers to have water. When a dam owner receives permission to generate hydropower, it is conditional permission. Because rivers are a public trust resource (i.e. they belong to all of us) dam owners are also required to leave enough water in the river to protect fish, wildlife, and recreational uses like swimming, fishing, and boating.

This is exactly the point of “renewable” energy: we take energy without depleting the resource that provides us with it. It may make sense to add hydropower to some existing dams in Vermont. But if other sites won’t work unless we throw basic environmental standards out the window first, then they shouldn’t be developed.

Earlier this year, Community Hydro lobbied Vermont’s legislature for a bill that would have allowed the owners of small hydropower projects to take more than their fair share of water. Had the law passed (it didn’t, thankfully) many of Vermont’s rivers would have been deprived of their water. It would have been perfectly acceptable for a hydro operator to leave some rivers in a permanent state of severe drought. On other rivers, dam owners would be allowed cut flows to winter low-water levels during the critical spring season just when fish need higher water to spawn and rear their young. That’s hardly “green” energy.

With so many new and innovative renewable energy technologies being developed today, gutting environmental protections to make a 19th-century technology like small hydropower more profitable is both reckless and selfish. Arguing that small hydro should be exempt from environmental standards because it is “environmentally friendly” is like arguing that a particular model of car shouldn’t come equipped with air bags and seat belts because it has a solid crash-test rating. Especially if the person making the argument is trying to sell you the car.