The New York Times’ Kate Galbraith had an interesting piece on the internecine warfare in the green movement that pits renewable advocates and environmental groups against hydro dams — right now the country’s predominate renewable technology. This piece follows on several in the past few weeks talking about a nuclear resurgence and what that may mean in the green power and environmental advocacy communities.
Long story short, in spite of the fact that it is cost competitive, non-GHG emitting, renewable and technologically deployable, there is A LOT of resentment against hydro dams. Opponents point to the impacts on local ecology especially, but also have attacks premised on displacement of human populations and even a methane emissions from hydro reservoirs argument that claims hydros are a net GHG emitter worse than they seem.
The bias is ingrained in most state RPS (renewable portfolio standards), and the current Waxman-Markey proposal limits hydro eligibility dramatically, allowing “renewable” status under the regime to a small portion of incremental hydro.
In researching a paper I recently published on the possible NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) ramifications of excluding hydro from the national RES — should one emerge — I contacted a lot of the hydro advocacy groups to get some talking points, research help, and generally just to get a sense of I assumed would be their outrage. I was astonished to find very little.
Hydro proponents are so beaten down by the opposition to dams based on the local impact that they are gun shy about touting the fact that they have a renewable source with abundant installed capacity that is local, affordable and reliable AND (drum roll please) is NON-GHG EMITTING! Excuse me, but I thought that is what we were looking for?
Even if we lean on hydro as a peaking resource stopgap while entrepreneurs and developers work on the intermittency problems with solar and wind, it would make a huge difference. The way things go right now, even if I install 300 MW of nameplate wind capacity and even if I get the transmission built and find a home for my power, the utility cannot rely on that 300 MW being there when they might need it. As such, they can’t retire the fossil-fueled base loading plant that they are currently relying on. And, since that fossil plant is not capable of functioning as a demand resource that can cycle on and off when needed, it remains at full GHG-spewing capacity 24/7. (Green House Gas)
Hydro dams can start and stop, peak and base load on very short notice and — in this blogger’s humble opinion — are a critically important bridge to a future grid that includes greater renewable blends.
Some of the bias is just plainly territoriality on the part of regulators. Massachusetts wants to develop local small power projects and not just have all their capacity needs shift from Southeastern coal plants to Maine or Canada’s hydro plants.
Some of it is self-interest on the part of investors/project developers. They feel that hydro should not be eligible for the direct
subsidies, RPS benefits or other incentives that are being offered because it is a mature technology. And, behind the curtain – like with nukes – they see that dams are not a place in which they are promised much of a chance to compete for a slice of the pie — solar, wind, bio, tidal, and storage tech are all A LOT more promising if you are looking to make a buck as an investor/entrepreneur.
If the goal is GHG emissions reductions, we’d better get serious. Not about limiting dams, but about mitigating their ancillary environmental impacts and finding ways to utilize the best renewable source we currently have available.