Conventional hydropower, which accounts for nearly 8.2% of total U.S. electric generation, can provide low-emissions alternatives to fossil-fuel energy. 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.

Hydropower’s Impact on Rivers

When it’s done wrong, hydropower is far from clean. 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. But there are other large energy companies, who want to be able to not update their dam operations to meet modern environmental laws.

Skagit River "bypass" | Rich Bowers
A “bypass” on the Skagit River, WA, which is a dewatered section of river due to poor hydropower practices | Rich Bowers

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 In some rare cases – when an outdated dam is causing real damage and can’t feasibly be made clean and safe – it’s time to remove it and find other, cleaner sources to replace it.

Is there a place for new hydropower?

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 with the industry to create incentives for developing responsible hydropower projects that don’t involve blocking or drying up healthy rivers with new dams or diversions.

These responsible hydro projects include:

  • 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.

Making hydropower work

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.

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.