Moving beyond the “Is hydropower green?” question

 There has been a recent flurry of news about hydropower and whether it should be considered a “green” source of power. Grist’s Ask Umbra column featured a discussion about whether a hydro project on one’s backyard stream is a sustainable way to generate power for home energy purposes.

In a piece about dams in the Northwest, Oregon Public Broadcasting quotes American Rivers Northwest regional director Brett Swift:

“Dams absolutely have an adverse impact on the environment. The important question is ‘what is the role of hydropower in the future of our energy mix’. And how we label it doesn’t necessarily inform that.”

I think Brett’s answer about examining the role hydro plays in our energy future is a good one. That’s the discussion we should be having, not whether hydro is “green” or “renewable”.

In an Everett (WA) Herald story, Darcy Nonemacher points out that even small dams can hurt the environment, and that calling them “small dams” or “micro hydro” can be misleading.

It is clear that hydropower dams can have a devastating impact on river health and the communities, businesses and fish and wildlife that depend on healthy rivers. It’s also clear we need emissions-free energy sources to fight global warming.

So, where do we go from here? What role should hydropower play in our future? American Rivers recently published Hydropower Dams in an Era of Global Warming.  Here, we spell out our vision for hydropower in the 21st century. Solutions include:

  • Increasing efficiency at existing hydropower dams
  • Considering adding hydropower capacity to existing dams
  • Upholding environmental safeguards
  • Holding hydropower developers responsible for dam safety
  • Recognizing that dams have finite lifespans
  • Judging dams on their impacts, not on their size

Read the full document for details on these solutions, and also to learn why building new dams doesn’t make sense.