Hydropower is defined as energy derived from water flowing through a turbine. Dams provide a dependable source of hydropower. This article addresses the debate over whether or not hydropower should be considered a “renewable” and/or “sustainable” energy source. The answer depends as much upon your location as who you ask.
In Sierra Club board rooms and high level UNESCO Integrated Water Resource Management discussions, dam removal receives almost as much attention as land acquisition. We need to understand the arguments for and against dam removal so we can advocate for policy decisions that are based on sound environmental science and common sense.
The word renewable means any natural resource or source of energy that is not depleted when used; or any source that is capable of being replaced by natural ecological cycles or sound management practice. The dictionary definition of renewable energy includes water, wind, and solar power. The word “sustainable” means something that is able to be maintained at a certain rate or level for a very long time.
The benefits of hydropower are considerable, including flood control, irrigation, and energy production. Hydropower turbines are capable of converting 90 percent of available energy into electricity, which is more efficient than nearly any other energy source. Hydropower is “adjustable”, meaning it can be turned up or down to match energy demand. The dependability and flexibility of hydropower is essential when needed to offset the inconsistencies and unreliability of wind or solar.
In spite of all these benefits, hydropower is not considered “green”, or “sustainable”, or even “renewable” by kool-aid drinking liberals brain washed by the environmental cartel. These folks do not want hydropower put in the same category with their precious “green” energy sources, solar or wind power. Proponents of dam removal claim that dams impede fish migration making them ecologically destructive and “unsustainable”. These folks believe dams should be removed, flooded landscapes restored, and rivers returned to their natural, prehistoric state. They advocate wind and solar energy as a replacement, not just for fossil fuels, but also for hydropower. Yet all you have to do is just step across the border into British Columbia and you will find hydropower listed as a valued part of Canada’s renewable and very “green” energy portfolio and future agenda.
Why is there such a discrepency between how hydropower is percieved in the public’s mind? Why is there such an outcry against dams, especially here in Washington state? The answer has nothing to do with hydropower’s efficiency or clean energy profile. Environmentalist objections are based solely on negative impacts they claim dams have had on free flowing rivers and regional fisheries. However, the reader should understand that while some negative impacts on fisheries are real and continue to be problematic, many negative impacts associated with dams have been grossly exaggerated or are without merit.
Historically, fish passage around and through dams has been addressed prior to, during, and after construction of all of Washington State’s major hydropower projects. Many Snake and Columbia river dams were designed and built with structures that allow for migratory fish passage. Some were not. In rare instances, fish passage structures incorporated into dam construction proved to be less functional than designers had hoped for. In order to compensate where fish transport has been blocked or reduced by dams, or where transport design has proven impractical or inadequate, hydro-energy providers have been required to build fish hatcheries to insure that an adequate supply of impacted fish species is maintained.
To date, while ideologically biased anti-dam rhetoric continues to flow from the environmental lobby, improvements in fish passage are being designed, engineered, and implemented. Contrary to the negative doom and gloom “extinction” scenarios painted by radical environmentalists, research compiled by NOAA Fisheries biologists shows that, “survival of juvenile fish through the eight dams of the lower Snake and Columbia rivers in the first few years of the 21st century is as good as or better than survival before the Snake River dams were built.”
The Federal government has a keen interest in the issue of dam impacts on fisheries. Under the authority granted to them by the Federal Power Act and subsequent laws passed by Congress, NOAA has been empowered “to implement solutions that reopen rivers to migratory fish while preserving hydropower generation” .
Creative solutions including cooperative agreements between governments and energy providers are addressing the remaining challenges regarding past and future hydropower impacts on fisheries.
NOAA has a dual mandate to insure continued clean, efficient, and unequivocally “renewable” hydropower AND protect fisheries. The two goals are not mutually exclusive nor unobtainable.
“NOAA Fisheries biologists and engineers continue to improve and implement best practices. We help dam owners design safe, timely, and effective fish passage solutions based on the unique conditions of each project. Our goal is to provide stable fisheries populations while the hydropower industry continues to supply renewable energy production.”
“The NOAA Fisheries Hydropower Program works with partners including other federal agencies, industry, states, non-governmental organizations, and Tribes to identify and implement solutions to reopen rivers to migratory fish while preserving hydropower generation. With more than 1,000 hydropower dams licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), NOAA Fisheries is busy keeping up with the demand to upgrade the nation’s hydropower infrastructure to meet today’s environmental standards.”
If objections to hydropower are centered on fish, then we need to know the facts about fish survival rates and current plans to mitigate existing problems before condemning dams as environmentally destructive and unsustainable.
Hydropower is indispensable to our regions economy. It is a clean, efficient, and renewable energy source. Hydropower should be celebrated as one of the greatest technological advances in the modern era, improved where necessary, but certainly not condemned