Hydro power is still battling to be recognised as a renewable energy resource in the US. Suzanne Moxon explains how decommissioning and an increasing regulatory burden are contributing to the uphill struggle

We all know that hydro power is a renewable energy resource; we are as certain of this, as we are that the earth is round. So why is it still such a hard task to convince those outside of the industry that hydro power can be part of the solution to the problems we all face from greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change?

The US national-hydropower-association tried to shed new light on the international debate at its annual conference in April. Phil Dutton from United American Energy encapsulated the industry’s mood: ‘We are boxed in, in a Rubik’s cube,’ he said, ‘as we try to redefine hydro power as a renewable energy resource.’

As in other areas of the world, US hydro is having a hard time jostling for position with less established renewable technologies. Perhaps one of the most publicly condemning actions to date has been its exclusion from the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) — a renewable electricity incentive programme which mandates that by 2010, 7.5% of US electricity sales must comprise wind, solar, biomass and geothermal generation.

Howard Groomspecht from the Department of Energy defends hydro’s exclusion by stating that the RPS is intended for emerging renewable technologies that are not yet commercially viable. ‘Hydro power can complicate the RPS,’ he explained. ‘With its large installed base there is the likelihood of large windfalls, while the geographical concentration of hydro can raise equity issues. We believe there are more appropriate ways of recognising hydro power.’

This may well be the case but hydro’s exclusion is proving to be damaging. ‘By purposely excluding hydro power from the RPS you are sending out the signal that hydro is not a renewable,’ Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of NHA, told Groomspecht. ‘Why not call it the new technology standard instead?’ she asked.

Hydro power is not a stranger to opposition in the renewables debate, as Congressman John Shadegg discovered. He fought successfully to include hydro (up to 30MW) in the Renewable Energy Production Incentive (REPI) programme. ‘Despite its benefits hydro power still faces serious opposition,’ he said. ‘At the 27 October 1999 mark-up of comprehensive electricity restructuring legislation in the Energy and Power Subcommittee, I tackled this issue by offering an amendment to make small hydro power projects eligible for the REPI programme. ‘The amendment was passed, but it was vigorously and inaccurately attacked as being “unenvironmental”. Numerous contentious amendments were offered at that mark-up, yet my hydro power amendment was the only one which was subject to a roll-call vote.’

Listening to delegates discuss such issues at the NHA conference, it becomes clear that science and politics do not always agree. Shadegg offers his opinion: ‘Renewable is not a technical term but a political term in this administration. And since hydro power is not politically correct at the current time, it is not considered as a renewable energy resource.’

Lance Wenger, from Shadegg’s office, believes that part of the problem is due to the visibility of dams. ‘Dams are such visible structures and people focus on visible things. Consequently dams get the wrong end of public reaction.’

Shadegg agrees, explaining how he had to give government committee members a science lesson about why hydro power is renewable. ‘There was a lot of acrimonious debate about this,’ he says, ‘but in the end it all came down to the visible perception of dams being a bad thing.’

Hydro power’s image can be disabling in its fight to be recognised as a renewable. ‘It is difficult for hydro power in North America to be seen as favourable if it has a bad reputation in the international community,’ says Luc Gagnon from Hydro-Quebec. He also says that decommissioning gives hydro power a serious image problem. The main concern is that governments tend to think locally, not globally, and so do not always favour hydro. ‘With global climate change,’ he asks, ‘is it reasonable to reduce the amount of clean hydro power [by decommissioning dams] to restore salmon stocks?’ Gagnon goes on to explain that with global warming the Pacific Ocean will become warmer and, ironically, higher temperatures are a key problem for salmon. Neil Leary from the US’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agrees: ‘Along with other human factors, climate change may have an effect on salmon.’

Talking about how hydro power fares in comparison with other renewables, Gagnon says that self-promotion alone is not good enough. ‘We realise it is difficult to gain support for hydro projects if we do not compare them with other options,’ he said drawing on his experience as an environmental advisor at Hydro-Quebec. ‘If we show how hydro compares environmentally with other renewables we will have an easier time convincing people,’ he believes. ‘For hydro power, it is not good enough to say that it has zero emissions. We must include emissions from building the power plants and transmission lines, as well as emissions from decaying biomass reservoirs. Life cycle assessment is so important to ensure that we don’t give a false picture.’

Congressman Shadegg has a stronger view point about the renewables debate. ‘There is a war going on,’ he said. ‘Hydro power is in a crisis. We need to expand it and not be in a defensive position. Don’t let the other side whip up their supporters and defeat you in spirit,’ he told the NHA delegates. ‘Don’t be intimidated by their tactics. Turn their arguments on themselves. The emission facts of hydro power are so strong and demonstrable. The advantage you all have is that hydro is clean. This is an irrational debate. The logical position is that hydro power is renewable.’


One opportunity which the industry agrees it must take advantage of is the restructuring electricity market in the US. Chris Hocker, president of NHA, says that with restructuring customers will have a greater choice and a better understanding of where their electricity comes from. ‘At this point,’ he says,’ people can make a decision about whether they take renewable energy or not. This is already happening in California and Pennsylvania and is bound to happen in other states.

‘As the largest renewable in the US, this is going to be an opportunity for hydro power. The hydro industry must capitalise on this. We must take advantage and get the message out there that hydro power is renewable,’ says Hocker.

The Department of Energy’s Howard Groomspecht agrees. ‘The competitive market can be very powerful for you,’ he told delegates. ‘Not many people know now if they do get their electricity from hydro power. It is up to you to position your power in the best possible place for the consumer.’

One obstacle, however, is the regulatory burden that US hydro power facilities must tackle. ‘We have to take off some of the legislative and adminsitrative shackles that make it so costly and burdensome simply to do business in the hydro industry,’ says Hocker.

The cost of relicensing, from a financial and time perspective, is taking its toll on hydro output. Fred Davies from the Edison Electric Institute says that hydro’s primary goal is to get the government to put a tourniquet on hydro capacity losses due to relicensing. ‘To the extent that we lose hydro capacity, we must make the government understand that we have to burn something to account for losses.’

The consumption of renewables was reported to have declined by 4% in 1999, mainly due to a reduced consumption of hydro power. Marilyn Brown from Oak Ridge National Laboratory predicts that there will a 5% loss in hydro by 2020, in part due to relicensing. Although she says that will be offset by gains in other renewables, Brown acknowledges that hydro has a role to play. ‘Hydro has a stake in addressing the challenge of global climate change. It is an important part of the diverse energy portfolio needed to meet reduction targets.’

Shadegg says that hydro must expand to survive, and points to 21,300MW that could be developed at existing US dams. ‘We have the facts on our side about the positive benefits of hydro power, and we need to get those facts across at every possible opportunity,’ he said. ‘Hydro power benefits every person in the US, but we must fight to preserve it.’

Comparing hydro power with other renewables

Greenhouse gas emissions
Some studies of energy options only consider emissions at power plants. Research carried out by Hydro-Quebec in Canada for the International Energy Agency considers the whole energy system. For fossil fuel systems it includes exploration and resource extraction, preparation, transportation, fuel storage, plant construction, combustion, maintenance and dismantling. For renewables the following are considered: plant construction, maintenance and dismantling.
The main finding concerning greenhouse gas emissions is that run-of-river hydro power has the highest performance among all systems (see chart). This is followed by nuclear, reservoir-based hydro power and wind power. However, run-of-river hydro and nuclear have a low electricity generation flexibility and wind power is intermittent. So these may require a back-up system, which could be fossil fuel-based, thereby increasing the final emissions factor of the electricity systems.
Hydro power systems with reservoirs are very much site specific. The amount of flooded biomass per hectare can vary by a factor of five and affect emissions from reservoirs. The reservoir area per kWh can also vary according to topography. For projects with an average reservoir size per kWh, hydro power has an emissions factor approximately 60 times lower than coal-fired generation.
Uncertainties still exist about greenhouse gas emissions from decaying biomass in reservoirs. Those in tropical environments could have a much higher emissions factor than reservoirs in boreal or mountainous regions. Many studies do not consider the emissions from reservoirs in the assessment of hydro power.
Energy payback ratio
With regards to the energy payback ratio of renewables, hydro power has the highest performance (205 for hydro with a reservoir and 267 for a run-of-river scheme, compared with fossil fuel systems which range from 7 to 21). If a system has a low payback ratio it means that energy is required to maintain it, and this energy is likely to produce many environmental impacts. The energy payback is the ratio of energy produced during its normal life span, divided by the energy required to build, maintain and fuel the generation equipment. If an option has a ratio close to one it means that it consumes almost as much energy as it produces and so should never be developed.
[Source: Hydro-Quebec, Direction Environment, February 2000, 2000G061-4 and 2000G061-1]

Will global climate change influence hydro power operations?

Neil Leary from the US Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that there will be hydrological effects due to this phenomenon. Heavy rainfall may increase but dry spells between these may lengthen. Snowmelt may occur earlier, there will be less snowpack, and changes in run-off.
Briane Adams, a senior hydrologist with the US Hydrological Survey, says that hydro power will be affected by the changes in volume and the timing of run-off caused by climate change. ‘The problem is,’ he said, ‘how do we manage and plan for potential climate change?’ Current water management strategies are based on existing periodical records from the past 100 years or so, but these will not be relevant for climate change. Adams recommends that operating plans for reservoir systems are revised or optimised and that basic engineering assumptions for new construction are re-evaluated.