Hydropower — collected from such structures as the Hoover Dam — represented nearly two-thirds of domestic renewable-energy production and 8 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration.
A significant factor in the refocused spotlight on the “original renewable” is the new leadership on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and its representation of key hydropower-producing states. Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., promised industry representatives at the hydropower association’s annual conference this week that he plans to “quickly” mark up hydropower legislation after a panel hearing Tuesday.
Wyden attributes the rise in hydro’s profile to better environmental stewardship on the part of facility operators and a more cooperative relationship between hydropower lobbyists and environmental groups focused on protecting river ecosystems. The effect of dams on fisheries and riverine habitat, as well as operational costs, has compelled organizations to promote the removal of dams in some instances.
“Hydro’s environmental performance has improved dramatically,” Wyden said.
Association President David Moller of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. acknowledged the role that historically low natural-gas prices have played in limiting hydropower expansion in recent years. But he said opportunities for hydropower still flourish because of state renewable portfolio mandates, coal-fired power plants being pushed into retirement and technological advances in powering existing dams and water channels.
“The price of natural gas has dropped, but it will never match hydropower’s fuel price of zero, or its attributes of being renewable and non-carbon-based,” he said.
Hydro proponents in the private sector and in Congress said this week that they will continue to promote hydropower development, possibly in future legislation. That could include examining additional regulatory issues that contribute to long lead times for completing electrified projects or adjusting current benefits that exist for clean power in the tax code. Prospects for he latter — which would involve extending the production tax credit for a multiyear period or making it permanent as Obama proposes — are dim outside a comprehensive tax code overhaul.
“I think at the end of the day, it’s all about making sure that hydropower and the benefits that come from hydropower projects are competitive in the marketplace with other energy projects,” Leahey said.
Whether the bipartisan camaraderie that has surrounded promoting hydropower can translate to moving broader energy legislation is anyone’s guess. But members close to the debate express optimism that the current spate of legislative action could beget compromise in the future.
“I’m not sure we’re any closer to that comprehensive policy, but I’d think that common ground on these issues like hydro can only be helpful,” DeGette said.