Groups representing hydropower and environmental interests want to use hydropower to generate renewable energy and foster healthy rivers. (Photo by Prateek Srivastava on Unsplash)

Over the years, the U.S. hydropower industry and environmental groups have often opposed each other, particularly regarding issues related to the effects of dams on rivers and their natural systems. However, the threat of climate change recently helped the two camps find common ground. In mid-­October, a dozen organizations representing hydropower interests and environmental interests issued a document summarizing their intentions to foster healthy rivers and promote hydropower as a means of generating renewable energy.

Released on Oct. 13, the document, which is titled Joint Statement of Collaboration on U.S. Hydropower: Climate Solution and Conservation Challenge, resulted from a two-and-a-half-year dialogue convened by Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, and the Energy Futures Initiative. In addition to the three conveners, the dialogue involved 17 organizations representing the hydropower sector and the environmental and river conservation community. The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers participated as observers.

The joint statement lists 12 signatories: the conservation organization American Rivers, the National Hydropower Association, the World Wildlife Fund, the hydroelectric operator Eagle Creek Renewables, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Low Impact Hydropower Institute, the hydroelectric provider Great River Hydro, the provider of hydropower and energy storage Rye Development, the river conservation organization American Whitewater, the river restoration group the Hydropower Reform Coalition, the turbine maker Natel Energy, and the Hydropower Foundation.

Five participants in the dialogue process were not listed as parties to the joint statement: the law firm Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP, General Electric, the engineering firm Black & Veatch, the Nature Conservancy, and the law firm Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry LLP. (Black & Veatch is a member of the National Hydropower Association, and associate vice president Jay Anders is the current NHA chair.)

The parties to the joint statement are “motivated by two urgent challenges,” according to the executive summary of the joint statement. “To rapidly and substantially decarbonize the nation’s electricity system, the parties recognize the role that U.S. hydropower plays as an important renewable energy resource and for integrating variable solar and wind power into the U.S. electric grid. At the same time, our nation’s waterways, and the biodiversity and ecosystem services they sustain, are vulnerable to the compounding factors of a changing climate, habitat loss, and alteration of river processes. Our shared task is to chart hydropower’s role in a clean energy future in a way that also supports healthy rivers.”

With more than 90,000 dams in the United States, the joint statement cites “potential opportunities in three areas,” namely rehabilitating, retrofitting, or removing certain of those structures. The joint statement also notes the potential benefits of adding pumped storage hydropower to existing dams. This process involves pumping water into higher-­elevation reservoirs during periods of low electricity demand and returning the stored water to a lower-­elevation reservoir to generate electricity when it is in high demand. 

Focusing on the rehabilitation, retrofit, and removal of dams and adding pumped storage hydropower “can help improve dam safety, flood protection, water security, and recreation, while also increasing renewable energy generation and electricity storage capacity, better integrating variable solar and wind power, reducing environmental impacts, restoring and protecting rivers, and advancing U.S economic development and job creation,” the joint statement notes.

To achieve these goals, the parties to the joint statement commit to work together to meet seven collaborative goals:

  • Accelerate development of hydropower technologies and practices to improve generation efficiency, environmental performance, and solar and wind integration.
  • Advocate for improved U.S. dam safety.
  • Increase basin-scale decision-making and access to river-related data.
  • Improve the measurement of, valuation of, and compensation for hydropower flexibility and reliability services and support for enhanced environmental performance.
  • Advance effective river restoration through improved off-site mitigation strategies.
  • Improve federal hydropower licensing, relicensing, and license surrender processes.
  • Advocate for increased funding for U.S. dam rehabilitation, retrofits, and removals.

States regulate by far the largest number of dams in the United States. To promote dam safety, the parties to the agreement have pledged to encourage states to assume greater authority over nonfederally regulated high-hazard and significant-hazard dams. In particular, the parties will call on states “to avoid broad exemptions of these dams from state safety regulation,” according to the joint statement. Additionally, the parties will advocate for greater federal support for state dam safety programs.

The solution would be to require owners of high-hazard or significant-hazard state-regulated dams to pay for inspections, just as some hydropower licensees pay annual charges to the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to fund its safety regulations, according to the joint statement.

During the next decade, nearly 30 percent of the approximately 2,500 U.S. hydropower facilities will require relicensing, presenting a significant opportunity for revisiting the relationship of these dams to the environment. As much as possible, decisions regarding the relicensing, retrofitting, or removing of these dams, as well as mitigating any environmental harm associated with them, should be analyzed on basin-wide rather than on a case-by-case basis, the joint statement maintains.

“A voluntary basin-scale approach may help increase the resilience and flexibility of the hydropower fleet in the face of climate change and could make possible innovative, system-scale approaches to environmental restoration and mitigation,” the statement says.

This preference for decision-making on a basin-wide scale was “inspired” by the restoration of the Penobscot River in Maine, says Bob Irvin, the president and CEO of American Rivers. Completed in 2016, the project took a basin-wide approach to restoration, removing two dams and installing a fish bypass system at a third dam, restoring access for migratory fish to more than 2,000 mi of river and stream habitat. Meanwhile, the project also enabled the owner of the dams to boost hydropower generation at six other sites, essentially maintaining overall energy production capacity.

“Those are the kind of win-win solutions that we will be looking for as we continue these discussions,” Irvin says.

The parties agreed to work for 60 days following the Oct. 13 release of the joint statement to persuade other stakeholders to join the coalition, among them tribal governments and state officials. The parties also planned to “address implementation priorities, decision-making, timetables, and resources,” the joint statement says.

Importantly, the parties will also continue to engage in the process of building on the trust that led to the establishment of the joint statement among organizations having such diverse viewpoints on many key issues, Irvin says. “Conservationists and the hydropower industry have often found themselves on opposite sides of issues in the past,” he notes. “There continue to be significant issues on which we differ and will continue to differ. But as we build trust, the hope is that we’ll be able in the long run to find solutions that won’t require us to do all-out battle every time.”

This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Civil Engineering as "Hydropower, Environmental Groups to Collaborate on Climate Change, River Issues."