Garner & Culbertson: No Clean Energy Future Without Hydro

Posted April 26, 2010 at 11:55am

As the Senate prepares to debate climate and energy legislation in earnest, it’s very clear what our priority must be: passing a bill that’s effective at creating jobs and reducing emissions. An ideal policy would tap into new energy technologies and renewable sources like wind and solar, while also exploring new, sustainable ways to develop more traditional sources.

[IMGCAP(1)]But there’s one largely overlooked solution, a major generator of clean energy that was dubbed “America’s best kept secret” by Energy Secretary Steven Chu — hydropower.

Already responsible for more than 70 percent of all U.S. renewable energy generation, hydropower eclipses all other renewable sources, feeding electricity to 30 million homes. Hydropower is affordable, sustainable and, with the right policies, can double its capacity — providing affordable electricity for millions more Americans and creating millions of jobs. And because it uses the energy stored in our domestic freshwater supply, it’s 100 percent renewable and doesn’t depend on volatile commodity markets or the politics of foreign regimes.

Unfortunately, many Americans — particularly inside the Beltway — seem unaware of the promise of hydropower. The debate over our renewable energy future has focused largely on wind and solar — both of which must be part of the solution. But all along, hydropower has been the sleeping giant of renewable energy, quietly providing dependable, base load renewable electricity generation for countless communities and ensuring a reliable electric grid.

As representatives from both sides of the hydro economy, we know that its potential is real and immediate. We come from the perspective of a West Coast public utility that is in the midst of investing more than $800 million to install more efficient hydropower turbine and generator technologies and a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer with more than 550 employees that has grown 27 percent and added 194 family-supporting jobs during a recession. We’ve seen this technology’s ability to spur economic growth and provide utility-scale clean power in communities that need it. It’s something that can be utilized across the U.S., and the time to embrace it is right now.

A recent study from independent firm Navigant Consulting Inc. found that investment and growth in the hydropower industry could create a cumulative 1.4 million jobs by 2025. These jobs would employ a range of skilled American workers in manufacturing, development, engineering, operations and maintenance — in particularly job-hungry places such as Ohio, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia.

And because many of these jobs will be located at existing hydropower facilities and non-powered sites that would be retrofitted to generate electricity, they will improve the economies of nearby communities without additional environmental impacts.

This potential is a central reason why the Obama administration has recently expanded its commitment to hydropower. In March, Energy Secretary Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy signed a memorandum of understanding to increase hydropower generation at federal facilities. They recognize the role this technology has to play. The question is, does Congress?

Past policies such as the Investment Tax Credit, Production Tax Credit and Clean Renewable Energy Bond program have gone a long way in supporting growth in hydropower. But it’s time to take the next step and support hydro technologies that not only create jobs themselves, but are crucial to enabling other renewables to come to scale.

The most important of these is pumped storage, the only commercially viable form of utility-scale energy storage in existence. The recent explosive growth in wind power generation has created a need for large-scale energy storage, and pumped storage allows us to retain tens of thousands of unused megawatts of electricity, dispatching it at times of peak demand and “smoothing” availability from other sources of power. Energy Secretary Chu last September called pumped storage “astoundingly efficient” and noted the “massive amounts of energy” it stores. Indeed, this proven technology already represents 20 gigawatts of domestic energy capacity, with another 31 gigawatts in the approval pipeline now.

Supporting pumped storage and valuing it properly through national policies such as a strong Investment Tax Credit, transmission incentives and inclusion in a national Renewable Electricity Standard would let America deploy the most economical, most available and most effective solution to the power storage question hanging over our clean energy future. It’s a problem we simply have to solve — and hydro is the answer.

Washington will be focused in the coming weeks on climate and energy legislation. At the end of the day, we absolutely must have a strong, smart policy that simultaneously deploys more renewable energy assets and ensures they’re viable at scale. That policy also must not leave affordable megawatts or available jobs on the table. Hydro should be at the center of achieving all of those priorities.

The power of clean, moving water has already served the nation for generations. With the right signals from Washington, we are poised to continue turning water into good American jobs, continued economic growth, greater energy independence and a clean and sustainable future.

Mark Garner is president and CEO of Voith Hydro, a group division of Voith and a producer of hydropower equipment. Tim Culbertson is the general manager of the Grant County Public Utility District in Washington state, the nation’s second-largest generator of nonfederal hydroelectric power.