Hydropower may account for just 7% of U.S. electricity generating capacity, but this sometimes overlooked renewable energy source could play a more significant role. That’s one of the conclusions from a first of its kind study on hydropower that quantifies the size, scope, and variability of hydropower in the United States.
The new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study (2014 Hydropower Market Report) describes a diverse fleet of hydropower plants that collectively produce enough electricity to power more than 20 million homes. The report also notes that the size of the hydropower fleet has grown in the last decade, mainly as owners have upgraded existing hydro assets, with a net increase of nearly 1.5 GW from 2005 to 2013. Total investment in hydropower amounted to more than $6 billion for refurbishments, replacements, and upgrades during that timeframe.
One Major Hurdle
On the plus side, the report indicates that the United States has more than 77 GW of potential hydropower capacity, and that the current development pipeline encompasses a mix of proposed projects at non-powered dams, conduits, and undeveloped rivers or streams. These projects, as well as large-scale pumped storage hydropower (PSH) projects, account for the bulk of current development plans. However, there is a major hurdle that clouds this picture. The widely available bond, grant, and tax-credit programs that helped drive development of hydropower projects in recent years have gone away, and new projects are likely to depend on alternative funding sources, which more than likely means a slower pace for upcoming projects.
Without a doubt, hydropower has it limits and cannot be thought of as a viable alternative in certain regions – drought areas of the Southwest come to mind. But given its potential for adding tens of gigawatts of untapped power, it should be part of the overall energy conversation because of its proven track record as a source of clean, reliable power, despite the potential funding hurdles.