Is hydropower clean? Our take on dams


American Rivers Hydropower Reform Initiative is one of our longest-running and best-known programs. We’ve been working with power companies and federal operators since we were founded nearly 40 years ago to try and reduce the harm to rivers from hydropower dams. As a result, we’re often asked if we see a tension between our serious concerns about climate change and our support for renewable energy on one hand and our concern about new dam construction and insistence that hydropower meet tough environmental performance standards on the other.

Conventional hydropower is one of the oldest and most well-established among a growing number of technologies that provide low-emissions alternatives to fossil-fuel energy. Nationally, hydropower accounts for nearly 8.2% of total electric generation. American Rivers has actively supported the continued operation of many hydropower facilities across the country. We recognize that hydropower – done right – is an important part of our nation’s energy mix. But the key lies in getting it right. When it’s done wrong, hydropower is far from clean. Hydropower is unique among renewable resources because of the scale at which it can damage the environment when it’s done poorly. Unless a hydropower dam is sited, operated, and mitigated appropriately, it can have enormous impacts on river health and the livelihoods of future generations that will depend on those rivers. Poorly-done hydropower has caused some species to go extinct and put others, including some with extremely high commercial value, at grave risk. That’s not something we should take lightly.

We can get clean energy from hydropower, but it must be sited, operated, and mitigated responsibly in order to earn this distinction. Many dams fail to meet this standard. The good news is that an increasing number of facilities do. Thanks to modern environmental laws and values, coupled with FERC’s regulatory process, hydropower’s environmental performance has improved substantially. We need more clean energy, and yes, that means more hydropower. But we also need to modernize the hydropower we do have in order to improve its environmental performance. And in some rare cases – when an outdated dam is causing real damage and can’t feasibly be made clean and safe – it’s time to move on and find other sources of cleaner energy to replace it.

While we’re very skeptical of the need for new dams or projects that dewater healthy streams, we think there’s a lot of new hydropower capacity out there that can be developed responsibly, and we’ve been very supportive of that new development. The National Hydropower Association estimates that America could double its hydropower capacity without building a single new dam. We’ve worked closely with industry on policies that would encourage the responsible development of these types of hydropower projects: efficiency improvements that enable more power to be generated from the same water, new capacity added to existing hydropower dams, and adding turbines to non-powered dams. As a class, these types of projects are cheaper to build, easier to permit, and much less harmful to the environment than hydropower that involves new dam construction, so we’re doing all we can to encourage developers to put their energy here. We’re also looking closely at new hydropower technologies that don’t involve dams or diversions to see if those may prove to be an effective – and cleaner – alternative than traditional hydropower.

To get hydropower right, we must consider both sides of the power / river health equation: we need to pursue better environmental performance and new generation together, as two goals that can achieved together rather than an either-or, zero-sum game. We must take equally seriously the promise of hydropower and the risks of hydropower development. We must encourage responsible development while also continually holding developers and federal operators accountable for their environmental impacts and insisting on the strictest performance standards. We must remove obstacles to development while recognizing at the most basic level that a high level of environmental performance and the costs of achieving it are not an “obstacle” to development but a fundamental and necessary component of it. We must help new development to take place while also accepting that, as the Obama Administration’s 2010 interagency hydropower policy memorandum acknowledges, “[N]ot every site is appropriate for new or increased hydropower production.” Any policy on hydropower must give equal weight to both sides of this equation if it is to succeed.