America’s hydropower industry is hoping to reestablish some of its former glory by making itself central to the nation’s transition to clean energy—and it’s turning to Congress for help.
The era of big dams arguably ended long ago. At one point referred to as “white coal,” hydropower was once a major source of electricity around the country, with the United States building more than 150 dams on the Columbia, Missouri and Colorado River basins in the 30 years following World War II. But today, hydropower provides just a small fraction of the nation’s electricity and is quickly being outpaced globally by its clean energy rivals in new development.
Now the industry, with help from a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, hopes to change that trend. They argue that hydroelectric dams can provide the kind of steady flow of power that’s needed to provide stability and reliability to the energy grid, especially on cloudy days and windless nights.
Earlier this year, two U.S. senators—Republican Steve Daines of Montana and Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington—introduced a bill that would speed up the licensing process by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for an array of hydroelectric projects, with a focus on converting many dams that don’t currently produce electricity into ones that do. A Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee began initial hearings on the bill in mid-July.
The bill has gained early support from industry, environmental groups, Native tribes and even the Biden administration. But it’s also getting pushback from some advocates who say that expanding or extending the use of hydropower could actually worsen climate change and hasten ecological degradation.
A growing body of scientific evidence has found that dam reservoirs are a significant source of carbon emissions—particularly methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s roughly 80 times more effective at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period. Those emissions are the result of organic matter, including vegetation, dead animals and even fertilizer runoff, piling up in large quantities behind dams and decomposing in the reservoirs.
One reservoir that’s being planned for construction in California would essentially have the same carbon footprint as 80,653 gasoline-fueled cars on the roads, one recent analysis found. Many environmentalists have also condemned hydropower because the dams often cause irreparable harm to the animals living in the rivers and have even contributed to the extinction of entire species.
“This is the biggest threat to river protection that I’ve seen in my career,” Gary Wockner, a longtime environmental activist with Save the Colorado who has spent years raising awareness about the ecological harms caused by dams, said in an interview about the proposed bill.
“It cuts the National Environmental Policy review and public permitting process” for dam conversion, Wockner added, referencing the landmark federal law. It requires federal agencies to examine how a major project could affect the environment, make their findings available to the public and consider community input before making a final decision. Wockner and others who oppose the measure worry it could delay river restoration and dam removal efforts for a generation.
Proponents of the bill say the changes won’t cut corners in the environmental review process, but merely streamline it—mostly by requiring collaboration and coordination between a project’s different stakeholders to avoid lawsuits and by identifying any projects that could be suitable for expedited review. They also say the bill wouldn’t necessarily lead to the construction of new dams, but only assist in converting already existing ones.
“Oftentimes, when you have a bill aimed at streamlining, it essentially means you’re skipping steps,” said Kelly Catlett, the director of hydropower reform at the environmental group American Rivers, one of the many groups that support the proposal. “You’re skipping a step here and there to gain efficiency. And that was not the approach that we took. We’re not skipping any of that.”
Typically, hydropower projects take an average of five years to get licensed and eight years to get relicensed as they go through lengthy environmental reviews and public comment periods. But under the proposed bill, FERC would be required to process a permit for dams being converted to generate electricity in just two years. It would also require the agency to process permits for pumped storage projects, which are essentially hydropower versions of batteries, in just three years. Those projects store water in reservoirs at a higher elevation, which can then be released to turn the dam’s turbines when extra energy is needed.
The legislation comes amid a broader and heated national debate over permitting reform, which has long been a priority for the fossil fuel industry and Republican lawmakers who say environmental reviews are too burdensome on developers and allow opponents to unfairly delay projects for years, often by tying them up in court. Even some top Democrats are now calling for streamlining permits for energy projects, saying that clean energy development is also being bogged down by sluggish regulatory approvals.
Opponents to permitting reform, however, say it could cause more harm than good, especially to low-income families and communities of color, which research has long shown are disproportionately located near industrial development and exposed to harmful pollution.
As Congress weighs the hydropower bill, it underscores an increasingly complicated debate, which has splintered many green groups and climate hawks who, for years, have fought on the same side. For now, the increasingly urgent need to address climate change, as well as the mounting evidence of hydropower’s carbon footprint, appears to be only complicating that discussion further.
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