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Power Points

The dam plan that works for everyone

Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state.

Nadia Yong

Like many who love rivers, I’m wary of dams. Sure, hydroelectricity produces clean energy, especially in the western United States, but the 20th-century water projects spree was reckless, often unnecessary and ecologically devastating. Dams wreak havoc on fish populations, displace local communities and smother spectacular canyons.

This week, I was inspired to rethink the potential of dams and hydropower, thanks to a conversation with Dan Reicher, a senior scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, adviser for VERGE Energy and fellow river rafter

Over 2.5 years of talks, known as Uncommon Dialogue, Reicher worked with stakeholders to develop a plan to increase the clean energy generated from existing U.S. dams while reducing environmental harms. The coalition reached an agreement supported by groups that historically have been at odds: the hydropower industry; environmentalists; and conservationists. 

The coalition's strategy has three pillars, known as the 3Rs: 

  • Rehabilitation to improve the safety and increase the resilience of dams, while reducing their environmental impacts 
  • Retrofitting powered dams and adding generation to some non-powered dams to increase electricity generation
  • Removing dams that have no benefit to society, negatively affect ecosystems and have safety issues

In a world of increasing political conflict, an agreement that jibes with opposing factions is a unicorn and deserves a closer look.

Powering existing dams; removing others

Of the 90,000 dams in the United States, only 2,500 have hydropower facilities for generating energy. What’s more, 30 percent of all dams will be up for relicensing in the next decade. That means thousands of opportunities in the coming years to address this dam problem. 

The Uncommon Dialogue agreement outlines a process by which existing dams in the U.S. either can be upgraded to generate power or torn down to better support fish populations. This creates a clear path to using or removing infrastructure that environmental groups — including American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Wildlife Fund — could get behind. It also creates a path for hydroelectric companies to grow capacity without requiring the construction of new dams. 

If done correctly, repowering dams would better use that existing infrastructure. An in-depth study from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2016 found that, if powered, existing dams could increase the nation’s hydroelectricity capacity by 50 percent. 

Of the 90,000 dams in the U.S., only 2,500 have hydropower facilities for generating energy.

This strategy is especially important as global warming changes water systems. As the drought in western states worsens, California’s hydro capacity has decreased. So far in 2021, hydro generated just 7 percent of the power in California, while the five previous years averaged 16 percent hydro generation. Meanwhile, climate change is causing some regions to become wetter, such as the Midwest.

Adding hydro capability to qualifying dams, coupled with better interconnection between the U.S. power system, could add needed renewable capacity as weather patterns continue to shift. 

Hydro as a complementary renewable energy source

Hydropower offers interesting attributes that complement other renewable energy sources. 

First, it’s a firm source of power, which can balance solar and wind resource intermittency while decarbonizing the power sector. This feature has encouraged companies striving to reach clean energy all day every day, such as Google and IBM, to look at hydro as part of its renewable procurements mix. 

Second, pumped hydro is a promising approach to energy storage. The approach works by pumping water (using wind or solar when there is a surplus of energy) from a reservoir to a second, higher reservoir. When electricity is needed, the water can flow back to the lower reservoir, generating electricity along the way. 

This approach potentially could offer electricity for longer durations than lithium-ion battery backups, which generally store in the neighborhood of four to six hours of electricity. Pumped hydro facilities, however, would require building new facilities, making them trickier to permit and build than straight repowering.

Making dams safer has broad support

One consequence of the dam spree of the mid-20th century: We have thousands of dams over 50 years old in need of repair.

You may have seen some close calls in the news. Last year, a dam in Michigan failed following heavy rains. California’s Oroville Dam came close to catastrophe in 2017 when the spillway failed and threatened the foundation. Earlier this year, a toxic dam in Florida risked collapse. San Diego just launched a multi-million-dollar review of its dams, declaring three in "poor" condition. These are just a few of the many dams that safety risks to U.S. communities — and the numbers are sure to grow with climate-change-fueled extreme weather

The flip side of the water-project spree is failing dams affect red and blue states alike, making a comprehensive solution attractive across the political spectrum.

In an April proposal from the Uncommon Dialogue collaboration, the group outlined a $63 billion plan to address America’s dams. It includes $18 billion in safety improvements, $15 billion to remove 2,000 dams and $24 billion to support federal agencies, including a path to add hydroelectricity, reported Sammy Roth in the Los Angeles Times. The price tag is massive, but it also may be well timed as Washington continues to find common ground on an infrastructure bill.

While this strategy doesn’t change my opinions about the government’s mismanagement of water in the west (if you want to be horrified, too, I recommend Marc Reisner’s "Cadillac Desert"), it does offer a promising path forward for a problem that has seemed intractable. If the stars align, it may lead to a much-needed dam solution. 

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