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Why Hydropower Should be Included in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Initiatives


Linda Church Ciocci, Executive Director, National Hydropower Association

As the many power, environmental and societal benefits of the hydropower resource are being debated in both national and international forums, the National Hydropower Association (NHA) offers twelve reasons why hydropower should be included in national and international renewable and sustainable energy initiatives. In fact, excluding hydropower would only shortchange both the national and global communities.

Excluding hydro would unnecessarily limit the tools available to policymakers as they wrestle with air pollution, a major health concern, and carbon emissions, a major contributor to global warming. Those advocating for a thoughtful, long-term and sustainable approach to dealing with these and other complex environmental issues should support hydropower and its many benefits. In short, we need hydropower more than ever.


First and foremost, hydropower should be included in renewable energy policies because it is a renewable resource. Hydropower, by definition, is a renewable resource because it is produced from elemental, natural and recurrent resources. Hydropower converts rainfall (and snowfall) into energy.

Like wind, solar and geothermal, hydropower’s “fuel” is essentially infinite and is not depleted during the production of electricity. Hydropower facilities simply harness the natural energy of flowing and falling water to generate electricity. Therefore, all hydropower projects – small or large, run-of-river or with storage reservoirs – should be considered “renewable.”

Since hydropower projects use water to generate electricity, they do not produce air pollution, which, among other things, causes considerable human health problems. Significant quantities of harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), mercury, lead and other fine particulates are avoided through the use of hydropower facilities.

The health problems associated with air pollution, most notably respiratory and cardiovascular ailments, would be substantially worse if hydropower facilities were not used to generate electricity. Simply put, hydropower provides major environmental benefits in terms of fighting air pollution. Relying more on hydropower to generate electricity would only lessen the air pollution problems which are increasingly becoming an issue for our society.

The United States is responsible for approximately 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, making it the largest CO2-producing nation in the world. The use of hydropower, however, avoids the release of a tremendous amount of CO2, the primary cause of global warming. In fact, NHA estimates that U.S. hydropower generation in 2002 avoided 130 million metric tons of carbon.

Put another way, the carbon emissions avoided by U.S. hydropower generation is equivalent to removing approximately 40 percent of the vehicles from U.S. roadways. What’s more, if the United States developed the 21,000 megawatts of undeveloped hydropower potential at existing dams identified by the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. could avoid an additional 42 million metric tons of CO2, clearly a significant contribution to the fight against global warming.

Finally, recent studies have shown that hydropower reservoirs can in fact act as “carbon sinks,” helping further reduce the impacts of carbon on our atmosphere by trapping it in the reservoir or by fixing it into less harmful compounds. Hydro’s role in reducing global warming needs to be taken into account as we develop broad energy policies and promote new resource development.

The management of our electricity grid depends upon fast, flexible generation sources to meet peak power demands, maintain level system voltages and quickly restore service after a blackout. Electricity generated from hydropower can be placed on the grid faster than any other energy source. Hydropower’s ability to go from zero power to maximum output rapidly and predictably makes it exceptionally good at meeting changing loads and providing ancillary electrical services that maintain the balance between electricity supply and demand.

Because hydropower is generated within seconds of when water begins rushing through its turbines, hydropower is particularly adept at providing incremental bursts of power. This is of great value to electric power grid operators and managers, which is why they often rely on hydropower’s speed and flexibility to meet moment-by-moment fluctuations in electric power demand and to restore service after a blackout.

Hydropower’s “blackstart” capability – the ability to restart generation without an outside source of power – is also of great value to the grid. Hydro’s blackstart role is unique and has shown its great value time and time again. Also, large hydro projects can at times withstand large system disruptions. Other types of power plants are not equipped to do so and will trip off-line or choose to shut down during major disruptive events. Due to its ability to support the electric power grid, power from hydroelectric facilities is indeed unique.

Water from rivers that is used for hydropower production is a domestic resource. What’s more, water is a resource that is not subject to market fluctuations or withholding of supply, unlike natural gas or oil. Also, unlike other renewable resources, hydro is not an intermittent technology. Moreover, hydropower is the only large-scale renewable source of electricity that helps optimize the use of thermal plants. Again, hydro shows unique value.

More important, there is a large amount of domestic hydro capacity waiting to be developed, which will only lessen our dependence on foreign and fossil sources of energy and help further stabilize electricity prices. There is also tremendous potential for new hydro development worldwide.

Hydropower is the most efficient generating resource in converting mechanical energy to electrical energy – with an efficiency rate frequently exceeding 90 percent – and it is improving. Further, hydro’s operational costs are low and predictable since there are no fuels to find, transport, and burn. Once its capital costs are recovered or ameliorated, hydropower is the most affordable energy source in use today.

Unlike other generation resources, hydropower provides a wide range of non-power benefits including recreation, flood control, water supply, navigation and irrigation. Hydro projects are truly multi-use projects that provide benefits to a wide range of people. For example, even very small hydro plants often include recreational amenities such as boating areas, fishing platforms, picnic grounds and hiking trails that help enhance the quality of life for residents of local communities.

In fact, hydropower projects in the U.S., in terms of recreation, provide over 47,000 miles of shoreline with over 2,000 water access sites; over 28,000 tent/trailer/recreational vehicle sites for camping, more than 1,100 miles of trails and over 1,200 picnic areas. No other energy source can match hydro’s multi-use attributes.

As previously discussed, hydropower facilities provide a unique value that allows them to respond immediately to fluctuating electricity demand. While this flexibility is critical in terms of grid stability, this unique feature also makes it the most efficient and cost-effective way to support the use of intermittent renewable sources of power, such as wind or solar energy. While the concept of blending renewable resources is relatively new, it is clear hydropower can support the additional development of other renewables and assist the nation as it moves more rapidly to a greater reliance on renewable energy.

Hydropower reservoirs harvest rainfall, thereby storing and supplying fresh water for drinking and irrigation. By storing and managing water, hydropower facilities can protect aquifers from depletion and reduce our vulnerability to costly and deadly floods. Hydro also helps to manage irregular and unevenly distributed supplies of water.

Hydro contributes to human welfare by: 1) ensuring safe and sufficient drinking water and sanitation, 2) enhancing food security and self sufficiency by making irrigation water available.1 Reservoirs can also provide a stable source of water for industrial development.2 Clearly, hydro has a role in stabilizing our world’s water supply and improving access to safe, clean water for people in developing nations, a major initiative of the United Nations.

With an average life span of up to 100 years, hydropower projects are clearly long-term investments that provide benefits for generations and generations of people. Hydropower projects, however, can also be easily upgraded to take advantage of the latest power and environmental technologies and to further their lifespan.

For example, there are over 4,300 megawatts of potential new hydropower capacity in the United States at existing hydropower projects. Known as incremental hydropower, this generation potential can be quickly developed by increasing the efficiency of projects or by adding capacity to underdeveloped projects. There is enough incremental hydropower capacity in the U.S. to meet the electricity needs of the states of New Hampshire and Vermont. Put another way, it is enough yearly power for 1.4 million homes. Hydropower is a flexible resource; one that is truly an energy source for future generations.

Hydro is not only a large scale resource; small scale hydropower is widely used throughout the world. In addition, exciting new hydropower technologies are being researched and developed – technologies that will allow hydro to play a strong role in providing distributed generation and provide energy to remote communities. These technologies, such as free-flow hydro, micro-hydro and irrigation hydro, also have minimal, and in some cases, no environmental impact. Small turbines can be added to aqueducts, public water supply systems, storm systems and cooling ponds for thermal plants. There is a wide variety of opportunities and we are seeing small hydro being deployed today in growing countries.

While hydro’s future will continue to rely on traditional projects – large and small – these new, emerging technologies will serve as a key component to hydro’s future growth and will expand our thinking and definition of hydropower. In fact, early DOE estimates of the potential for such development indicate that U.S. hydro production could double. Hydro is a resource for the future that possesses exciting new technologies and potential.

A 2002 public opinion survey conducted in the United States by Bisconti Research, Inc., a leading public opinion researcher, found that 93 percent of the respondents believe hydropower is an “important energy source for the future.” What’s more, 89 percent said they favor the use of hydropower as an energy source. Additionally, 74 percent approved of the federal government providing incentives for the development of unused hydropower capacity.

In 2004, regional focus group polling conducted by the same firm reconfirmed in detail the 2002 polling numbers. It is clear that the American public appreciates and supports hydropower as a clean energy option. Policymakers should do the same.

1 International Hydropower Association document titled Hydropower: A Key Tool for Sustainable Development,

2 International Hydropower Association document titled Hydropower: A Key Tool for Sustainable Development,

Readers Comments

Date Comment
a b

I am pretty sure the environmentalists will have some objections to present to this great and dead-on article, like salmon fish bottlenecking. I however am in favor of a combined use of hydropower with other renewable energy resources, just to push out imported energy resources and keep the money in-house, generating jobs and tax revenues for the local area's, instead of sending the money to the middle-east.

The coal , nuke and oil&gas lobby will probably have negative comments to put on the table, but their concern$ are probably tied to their intere$t$.

Bruce Cavender

Linda, All the advantages you mention can be wholeheartedly supported by most reasonable people that can see both issues of the need for power and the need to preserve our envirionment. Certainly the salmon issues can be met with a little American Ingenuity. Personally I love the idea of hydro and I am curious as to what the 'root cause' is behind the lack of development.

Why are the current owners, operators, managers, caretakers, stakeholders not actively deveoloping projects to harvest this 4300 MW?

Are the remaining, potential hydro projects technically and economically marginal to where the IRRs too low for private capital without major subsidy? Are govt owned dams underdeveloped because their managers are comfortable and not interested in the additional growth or maximizing output? Possibly disencentivized somehow?

Are corporate boards of directors too comfortable and not seeking the same growth?

Are environmental and regulatory hurdles too costly and risky?

Who can do the most to get this going?



Nan Nalder

Linda, What a timely article! I couldn't agree more with your message. I have always been puzzled when hydropower is not included as a renewable. Politics, rather than engineering and common sense weigh in all too often when hydro is the topic. I am working with clients who are trying to complete arrangements to install generation within pressurized conduits whose primary purpose is to supply water for municipal & industrial use. I am painfully aware of the number of potential conduit projects that go unrealized due to inability to reach agreement within the "window of opportunity" available as upgraded conduits are brought on line. The amount of wasted clean hydropower generation in these projects alone is truly a tragic result of the highly politicized and arduous regulatory process to receive approval for these important additions to regional generation. Keep speaking out! Best wishes, Nan


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Updated: 2016/06/30

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