We understand the disdain some people have for hydroelectric dams.
They turn free-flowing rivers into stagnant reservoirs.
They interfere with, or block altogether, the migration of anadromous fish such as salmon and steelhead.
But these dams also produce copious amounts of electricity, reliably and, unlike coal, without spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. Hydropower also has advantages over other renewable sources, such as wind and solar, most notably that hydro plants can produce power constantly.
All of which explains why we hope the U.S. Senate gives serious consideration to a bill the House of Representatives passed last week. The legislation is designed to make it easier for hydroelectric plants to be licensed by the federal government.
This doesn’t necessarily mean building dams, though.
The House bill was prompted in part by the reality that the nation’s existing dams represent a source of clean, renewable energy that’s barely been tapped. Just 3 percent of the country’s 80,000 dams generate electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The bill, if it becomes law, might not have a major effect on the Northwest, which already relies far more heavily on hydropower than other regions. Almost 70 percent of the electricity generated in Washington is derived from water turning turbines, and Oregon’s and Idaho’s shares both exceed 50 percent.
Nationally, though, hydroelectric dams account for just 7 percent of the electricity supply.
House Republicans who voted for the bill, including Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, contend that the nationwide share of hydropower could be doubled without building any dams, but by installing turbines at larger dams and locks on major rivers such as the Mississippi, Ohio and Arkansas.
The bill’s critics raise legitimate questions about the details. The bill would make the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the lead agency for issuing hydropower licenses, and require states to defer to the agency. This raises the specter of private companies pursuing hydropower projects over the objections of local residents.
Still and all, we’re optimistic about the prospects of Congress formally recognizing the vital role that hydropower can, and should, play in America’s transition to cleaner sources of energy.
In addition, we hope the bill will convince Oregon lawmakers to reconsider their peculiar aversion to defining as “renewable” the massive amounts of electricity generated by the federal dams on the Columbia River. That energy is not considered “qualifying electricity” in the state law that mandates large utilities obtain a certain amount of their energy from renewable sources.