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Hydropower Offers Potential for Energy but Only With Revisions, Lawmakers Told

May 12, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Hydropower Offers Potential for Energy but Only With Revisions, Lawmakers Told

WASHINGTON — Hydropower offers a promising clean energy option for producing electricity but only if the current regulatory obstacles can be overcome, according to energy industry and environmental officials who testified to Congress Thursday.

Last year, hydroelectricity generation produced about 260 billion kilowatt hours or 6.5% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation.

It has the potential to grow to 10% by 2050, witnesses told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy.

“It is the world’s largest source of renewable energy,” said Malcolm Woolf, president of the National Hydropower Association.


It also can take more than five years to get government approval for an electrical generation license and $10 million in regulatory costs, Woolf and other witnesses said.

“It takes way too long to license a hydropower facility,” Woolf said.

Instead of expanding their operations, about 40% of hydropower generating companies are thinking about decommissioning their plants to rid themselves of bureaucratic burdens, he said.

Congress is considering reform proposals to speed up the licensing and to reduce costs for hydropower utilities.

The Federal Power Act sets the standards and procedures for hydroelectric generation. It is administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which also grants licenses for the plants.

Several reform proposals are pending in Congress, including the Hydropower Clean Energy Future Act. It seeks to avoid duplicative government bureaucracy and to reduce regulatory costs.

It also would require the federal government to purchase an increasing amount of renewable energy, such as hydropower.


The U.S. Energy Department estimates a 50% increase in clean energy from hydropower would prevent $209 billion in damage from climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

The Hydropower Clean Energy Future Act was co-authored by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican whose home state of Washington is one of the nation’s biggest users of hydropower. She described it as an overlooked opportunity for electrical generation.

“Only 3% of the 90,000 dams in the United States produce electricity,” she said.

Among the roughly 2,500 dams that generate electricity, the licenses for about 30% of them will expire in the next decade. Relicensing can take more than six years and millions more dollars in regulatory fees.

In addition to time and expense, other interference to hydropower comes from environmentalists concerned about damage to fish and wildlife from hydroelectric dams. Their lawsuits and political lobbying can tie up projects for years.

“Dams do have significant effects on river ecosystems,” said Tom Kiernan, chief executive officer of the environmental group American Rivers.

Since 1970, about 80% of the world’s fresh water life species have become extinct because of human development, Kiernan said.

Environmentalists and regulators tried to work out a middle ground agreement on hydropower sometimes called the Uncommon Dialogue. It refers to a 2020 Stanford University initiative that brought together environmentalists, energy industry executives and scientists to develop a strategy that would make hydropower practical.

It envisions a $63 billion investment over 10 years to promote hydropower while also protecting the environment. A large part of it consists of building new hydroelectric generators, rehabilitating outdated ones and removing unnecessary dams that infringe on wildlife.

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who chairs the Subcommittee on Energy, described the Uncommon Dialogue as an attempt “to create a legal framework that is acceptable to all parties.”


He implied the initiative is being considered by lawmakers as they figure out how to improve hydropower.

Tom can be reached at [email protected] and @TomRamstack

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