How Clean is Hydropower?

Bonneville Dam, Oregon | N1D0

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. Hydropower accounts for nearly 8.2% of total U.S. electric generation. But does that make it clean? It depends. 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. Irresponsible hydropower development 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.

A hydropower facility that is sited, operated, and mitigated responsibly can be considered clean energy. Many hydropower facilities fail to meet this standard. The good news is that an increasing number do. Thanks to modern environmental laws and values, the tireless advocacy of American Rivers and others, and progressive voices within the industry, the environmental performance of many hydropower facilities has improved substantially.

There’s still a great deal to be done: plenty of older hydro dams still need to be brought into the modern era, and we’re working hard to make sure that happens. In some rare cases – when an outdated dam is causing real damage and can’t feasibly be made clean and safe – it’s time to move on and find other, cleaner sources to replace it.

New hydropower, done right, can also be an important part of America’s energy mix. Some estimates suggest that America could double its hydropower capacity without building a single new dam. We’ve worked with industry to create incentives for developing responsible hydropower projects that don’t involve blocking or drying up healthy rivers with new dams or diversions. We support efficiency upgrades that allow hydropower plants to modernize and generate more power from the same water and upgrades that add new generation to existing dams and other water infrastructure. 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.

More Information About Making Hydropower Safe For Rivers