To Emit or Not to Emit…Should That Be the Question?


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.

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  1. Joseph,

    I read your post with interest, because I too believe that hydro is not the beast it is portrayed to be. Too bad the post had some bad data as well.

    Hydro dams CANNOT start and stop, peak and base load on very short notice. In some most cases, because the water flow must meet environmental (protecting fish, minimizing erosion, etc.) guidelines. Utilities schedule all power sources, and generally complain about having to release water at times when electricity demand is low.

    So, the same time-of-use issues facing wind and solar, also face hydro. Renewable energy storage is a common challenge that deserves more attention than it currently receives.

    We have worked hard to develop alternate energy sources, and some of them are quite good. The technical community should be challenged to develop methods of storing the energy we cannot use now, and return it to us when and where we can. If that issue had been addressed before today, there would be no need to discuss additional sources of energy.

    On the whole, we have more than enough energy production capability, just not WHEN or WHERE we need it.

  2. Tom:

    Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to post the comment.

    I don’t agree with your contention that hydro resources “CANNOT” typically serve a peak loading function. In fact, that is their primary purpose in many ways today. They certainly are technologically capable of peaking, as the US Army Corps of Engineers cites their ability to respond to demand increase and “begin pumping in minutes,” and the UN points to their ability to do the same “in a matter of seconds.”

    It is true that there are a lot of concerns about the implications of peak response operation, but that is precisely the spirit of the piece: there are regulatory limitations artificially limiting the tools at our disposal to use physical science to address the physical problem of emissions.

    As for utility complaints, I’m not sure what you mean. The only utility complaints I am familiar with in the hydro peaking context are those that have been raised in the past — specifically under ISO bid regimes — where peaking hydro sells really low cost pumped storage at really high peak demand prices given their peaking ability, rather than bidding it into the market in advance at a more realistic cost-plus price.

    Anyway, it just goes to show why hydro is such a controversial topic. Thanks again for reading and keep coming back to CleanTechies!


    • Joe,

      I liked reading your posts on Hydro power. You are correct in stating that Hydro power can provide peak loading power very quickly, I have seen some designs that can start up and produce power for the grid in well under a minute, and in small scale (25mW and smaller) within a couple of seconds.

      What i have read in your posts so far deal with dams and pumped storage, have you looked into run-of-river hydro? The run-of -river hydro plants do not flood land like the storage type and can provide an excellent reliable base load, in some cases even peak, demand load as well.

  3. The number is waning… especially as those same folks predictably get scared about the national security issues that surround climate change.

    It is the Woolsey argument, frame the problem in a way that they care about… ie, keeping Americans and the rest of the world safe.