Fueling a cleaner future with hydropower

Last month I had the pleasure of interviewing the dynamic and thoughtful Gia Schneider on our podcast. I invited her to post this guest blog to elaborate on the exciting opportunities on the horizon for sustainable hydropower.   — Jon Powers

By Gia Schneider, CEO & co-founder of Natel Energy

Last month, the 46th President of the United States was officially sworn into office, introducing policies to combat the effects of climate change and taking action on previously stalled infrastructure initiatives, finally making forward progress towards sustainable, renewable energy. 

On his very first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris climate accord as well as push his $2 trillion climate plan into action. Biden’s plan aims to eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2035, end the Keystone XL pipeline, establish rules that limit methane emissions from oil and gas drilling operations, as well as boost the economy by adding 10 million clean energy jobs.

Additionally, a stimulus bill passed in December 2020 includes $35.2 billion for energy initiatives and technologies, including $900 million for hydropower technologies and an additional $160 million for upgrades to existing hydropower generators and infrastructure that don’t currently produce electricity.

Shown: Natel Energy’s Restoration Hydro Turbine

Hydropower sits at the nexus of energy and water, enabling hydropower projects to be catalysts for positive change. If designed with both in mind, hydropower projects can increase reliable renewable generation and have positive benefits for river ecosystems and water users. It generates renewable, rapidly-dispatchable energy that helps integrate more intermittent renewables like solar and wind into our electricity supply. 

With funding and technology at the ready, how can we increase the role hydropower plays as we transition to a zero-carbon grid while supporting and enhancing the health of our nation’s waterways?

Hydropower as a sustainable solution

On October 13, 2020, the hydropower industry and river community signed a historic Joint Statement of Collaboration to discuss ways to maximize hydropower’s climate benefits, while mitigating the environmental impact of conventional dams and supporting environmental restoration.

The Joint Statement called out three primary pathways: 

  • Rehabilitate powered and non-powered dams that need repairs
  • Retrofit (e.g., upgrade) powered dams with modern turbines and controls, add generation at non-powered dams, develop pumped storage projects, and enhance hydro operations for water supply, fish passage, flood mitigation and grid integration of wind and solar;
  • Remove dams that no longer provide benefits to society, have safety issues that cannot be cost-effectively mitigated, or have adverse environmental impacts that cannot be effectively addressed.

Applying the first two “Rs” is relatively intuitive — upgrade existing plants with modern technologies that enable better environmental and power performance, and selectively add power to existing non-power water infrastructure using modern technologies that are environmentally sound. The third “R” is somewhat more complicated. There are more than 90,000 existing dams in the U.S., of which less than 2,500 produce hydropower. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimated in 2019 that $70 billion is required to rehabilitate federal and non-federal U.S. dams. 

By focusing on the rehabilitation, retrofit, and removal of existing powered and non-powered U.S. dams (the “3 Rs”), the parties to the Joint Statement aim to improve dam safety, flood protection, water security, and recreation, while also increasing reliable renewable energy generation and electricity storage capacity, better integrating variable solar and wind power, reducing environmental impacts, restoring and protecting rivers, and advancing U.S. economic development and job creation. 

Harnessing the power of water

Water has been and will always be at the center of the Earth’s and humanity’s story. 

Civilization’s fortunes – feasts, famines, and everything in between – are timed and tied to interlinking networks of water-enabling and water-enabled ecosystems. These ecosystems, and our ability to reliably harness their services, define virtually every aspect of our individual and collective experiences as human beings. This was as true for our ancestors as it is for us today.

Never has humanity faced such a daunting challenge – to fundamentally alter how we interact with our Earth, our atmosphere, and each other in such a brief period of time. Yet, at the same time, never has any generation been as empowered – scientifically, technologically, and financially – with the tools and resources to proactively mitigate, adapt and address the myriad of climate challenges and opportunities we now face. 

Tune in:

Gia Schneider was recently interviewed on Experts Only podcast. Listen to Episode 81 here.