14 November 2010

The Resurgence of Hydropower

By Catherine Farrell, Staff Writer

As the concern over climate change and high oil prices increases, there has been strong support through all levels of government to move towards clean, renewable energy.  Hydropower has emerged as one of the top renewable energy sources, because of the low cost of production and maintenance.   Therefore, it is not surprising that much of the recent energy-related legislation enacted by Congress and Pennsylvania, has been focused on expanding the potential of hydropower.

Hydropower is energy that comes from the force of moving water.  It is classified as a renewable energy source because the water being used is continuously replenished by precipitation.   A traditional hydropower plant consists of three main parts: a dam which can be opened and closed to control water flow through the system, a power plant where the electricity is produced, and an artificial lake or reservoir where water is stored.

  In recent months, there has been a strong push by the federal government to increase the nation’s production of hydropower.   Hydropower is no longer thought of as a mature, fully-developed resource, but, instead is seen as a source of energy with great potential.   For instance, in March 2010, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and the Army Corps of Engineers collaborated on a Memorandum of Understanding.   The goal of this Memorandum is to increase federal and non-federal hydropower development on federal land and at federal facilities, with an emphasis on environmental concerns.   The Memorandum further states that hydropower will benefit the electric grid “by providing long-term, stable production” of electricity to meet the ever-increasing demand.

  The Memorandum only highlights some of the advantages of hydropower.  Another significant benefit is that the hydropower plants are able to store energy.  The water in the reservoir is stored energy and can be released as needed to produce more electricity.  Another benefit of hydropower is that it is currently the cheapest way to generate electricity.   Once the initial cost of building the dam and hydro plant have been expended, the energy source—water—is free.  With the many advantages, there are, however, some significant downfalls.   For instance, the amount of electricity produced is often dependent on the amount of precipitation that has fallen.   In 1997, 10 percent of the total electricity produced in the United States was from hydropower plants, but this percentage fell to 5.9 percent in 2008 due to droughts.  Even the Memorandum stated some potential drawbacks.  While it is true that three federal agencies were signatories to the legislation, notably missing from the collaboration were the U.S Forest Service, the National Fisheries Service and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

  As the emphasis on hydropower at the national level continues to increase, the state of Pennsylvania has also turned its attention to this renewable resource.  Pennsylvania has enacted several energy polices in the last few years that show the state’s commitment to helping the alternative energy industry and hydropower grow.  The state enacted the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act of 2004 which mandates that at least 18.5 percent of all energy generated in Pennsylvania should come from advanced sources by 2021.  Other legislation includes the Alternative Energy Investment Fund, which allocates $650 million in grants, loans, and tax credits to promote renewable energy.  The impact of this legislation not only affects the environment by providing for cleaner forms of energy, but could also result in tens of thousands of new jobs in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell summed up his goal of creating a greener energy economy in Pennsylvania by stating, “With forward-looking public policy and investment strategies, Pennsylvania will continue to play a leading role in developing homegrown answers to our current energy challenges through breakthroughs in renewable resources like hydropower.”

Catherine Farrell is a fourth-year evening student. She is a Staff Writer for Juris and Secretary of the Environmental Law Society. Catherine received a bachelor's degree in Administrations of Justice from the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at farrell5534@duq.edu.