Want bipartisan infrastructure? Increase domestic hydropower production

In his State of the Union address, President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE pledged up to $1.5 trillion through public-private partnerships to meet the country’s infrastructure needs. Identifying current problems, the President said, “America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year. Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?”

My colleagues and I hoped that President Trump would cite hydropower as an example of the byzantine process infrastructure projects must go through to become a reality. That’s because the same length of time required to build a road in the U.S. – 10 years – is standard to simply license a hydropower facility. Even a nuclear power plant can be licensed more quickly.


Our optimism was buoyed by the fact that the president is a big fan of hydropower, the original renewable energy. Shortly after taking office, he said “You know, hydropower is a great, great form of power. But we don’t even talk about it anymore because the permits are virtually impossible. [Hydropower] is one of the best things you can do, but we don’t even talk about it anymore.”

Earlier this year, the president made headlines when he praised Norway’s reliance on hydropower while questioning why the United States doesn’t follow suit. “I wish we’d do some of that… But hydropower is fantastic, and it’s a great asset that you have,” President Trump remarked to Norway’s Prime Minister during a joint press conference at the White House. 

President Trump is putting his affection for hydropower into action. The administration’s recently released infrastructure plan incentivizes the development of effective and efficient water infrastructure, streamlines the federal procurement process, and ensures life-cycle management at hydropower facilities. These proposals are a good start to what I hope becomes a renewed investment in and support for domestic hydropower resources.

The president should have bipartisan support for hydropower reforms at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Both the House and Senate are working on legislation that would improve the licensing process for hydropower facilities – and doing so with the votes of both Democrats and Republicans. Late last year, the House passed legislation that would streamline the hydropower licensing process, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee continues to work on similar legislation as a part of a comprehensive energy bill.

The president’s praise for hydropower is perhaps surprisingly similar to the ranking Democrat helping to lead those efforts in the Senate, Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellWill Biden's NASA win the space race with China? Bill Nelson is a born-again supporter of commercial space at NASA Biden looks to bolster long-term research and development MORE of Washington. Cantwell has said, “Emissions-free hydropower provides close to three-quarters of Washington state’s electricity and keeps our rates among the lowest in the country… more hydropower capability means an increased supply of affordable clean energy, which helps make Washington state a leading place to live and do business.” 

In a town where partisanship often reigns supreme, hydropower is one of the few issues that can unite legislators with otherwise disparate views on so many issues. The president and Congress have a real opportunity to work together to pass needed legislation to fix aging infrastructure, including our hydropower fleet. 

This opportunity comes at a critical time.

Over the next five years, approximately 24 percent of the over 1,000 non-federal hydropower projects will be up for re-licensing through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. These projects represent a significant portion of the country’s existing energy portfolio – energy we risk losing if the licensing process is not reformed and owner/operators decide to simply walk away from the projects.

These delays have an impact on future projects, too. The Department of Energy estimated that we could increase domestic production of hydropower by 50 percent through a combination of new projects at non-powered dams, upgrades at existing facilities, and construction of pumped storage hydropower facilities. That’s over 50 gigawatts of energy, capable of powering tens of millions of homes and businesses, that we aren’t utilizing. But this potential won’t be reached without congressional action. 

What happens when we increase hydropower production? We create jobs from coast to coast, both in the extensive hydropower supply chain and at the facilities that will last for decades once built, while producing the clean energy needed to power the future.

The president and Congress are on the same page when it comes to hydropower. They should work together to ensure it remains front and center in any infrastructure bill that becomes law.

Bob Gallo is President Emeritus, External Affairs and Government Relations for York, Pennsylvania-based Voith Hydro, Inc. Voith is a leading worldwide manufacturer of hydropower generating equipment.