Despite Dam Woes, Hydropower Grows
by Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press, February 14, 2010
New low-impact technology allows efficient retrofits of existing structures
Despite the controversy surrounding some existing energy-generating dams, the outlook for hydropower is generally optimistic.
The odds of major new hydroelectric dam construction are admittedly slim, said Jeff Leahey, senior manager of government and legal affairs for the National Hydropower Association.
However, the future of the hydropower industry doesn't depend on new dam structures -- there are plenty of them already, he said.
Of the 80,000 dams in the U.S., only about 3 percent are devoted to power generation, according to the Congressional Research Service. The rest were built for recreation, fire protection, flood control, irrigation and other purposes.
"There is great potential for building on this existing infrastructure," Leahey said.
Hydropower has a long history in the West, so the technology often isn't viewed with as much excitement as wind or solar development, he said.
"They just by default have gotten more of the attention," Leahey said.
New turbine designs can produce electricity more efficiently, and the technology can be retrofitted to smaller dams that don't hinder fish passage in "main stem" rivers -- a major source of controversy with older hydroelectric facilities.
Water-propelled facilities can complement other renewable energy sources when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining, Leahey said. "Hydro is a good partner to match up with those technologies to make sure you have a reliable electricity grid," he said.
Karl Wirkus, deputy commissioner for operations at the Bureau of Reclamation, said he expects such innovation to drive more interest in hydroelectric facilities.
"I think there will be a renewed move to build those," Wirkus said.
Retrofitting smaller structures with turbines is unlikely to run into the same bureaucratic challenges as a traditional hydropower projects would face.
"It's going to be done with not near the impact that constructing a new dam will have," he said. Projects with a minimal environmental impact are likely to meet with support from groups that have opposed larger facilities.
The National Wildlife Federation, which is involved in litigation over hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake River, is interested in retrofitting existing dams, said Dan Siemann, senior environmental policy specialist for the group.
"Renewable energy is something we need to do, and hydro certainly plays a role in that. What we don't want to be doing is sacrificing one environmental need for another," he said. "We believe there are ways to have appropriate hydropower and salmon survival."
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