Don't be fooled: Hydropower is an essential part of a US climate solution

Don't be fooled: Hydropower is an essential part of a US climate solution
© istock

A recent op-ed that appeared on The Hill questions hydropower’s role an essential part of a climate solution in the United States. Don’t be fooled. Hydropower currently makes up about 37 percent of all U.S. renewable generation, provides over 90 percent of American’s long-duration energy storage, and powers an estimated 30 million homes. Moreover, as America’s first renewable resource, hydropower’s flexibility enables it to enhance grid reliability while integrating growing amounts of wind and solar generation.  

Let’s set the record straight: lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for run-of-river and pumped storage hydropower facilities are the lowest of any energy resource, according to a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even when you factor in hydropower with reservoirs, it is still slightly lower than solar energy.

The author’s concerns about hydropower are particularly inapplicable in the United States. While there are legitimate scientific questions about emissions from new reservoirs, specifically in tropical climates, that is not the situation here in the U.S. In fact, one of the more significant near-term growth opportunities in our country is building on existing infrastructure. Only 3 percent of existing dams are used for electricity generation with roughly 87,000 existing non-powered dams that are currently used for flood control, water storage, irrigation or recreation. 


Many of these non-powered dams are prime candidates to add hydroelectric generation facilities. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that adding generation to non-powered dams, upgrading existing facilities, and closed-loop pumped storage development could add almost 50 gigawatts of clean energy onto our grid.

This is why it is so exciting that the hydropower industry, which my organization is a part of, has entered into a historic collaboration with the river community, environmental groups, and dam safety advocates to accelerate the “3Rs:” retrofitting dams to increase renewable power generation; rehabilitating dams to address any safety concerns; and removing dams determined by their owners to no longer serve a purpose. And our efforts are already bearing fruit. 

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in the Senate provides $2.3 billion to support power upgrades, grid resiliency investments and environmental improvements at existing hydropower facilities, dam safety and the removal of obsolete dams. This funding will help optimize renewable power generation, bolster dam safety at powered and non-powered dams, and accelerate the removal of non-powered dams that have been abandoned or are no longer needed.

The work, however, isn’t done. While the Senate infrastructure bill represents a vital down payment, the U.S. Congress now has the historic opportunity to address the scale of the challenge by including the bipartisan Twenty-First Century Dams Act in the reconciliation package. The change we seek must be transformative, and this bill makes a $25.8 billion investment in hydropower, river restoration and safer communities.

In addition to programmatic funding, the bill also creates a targeted 30 percent investment tax credit (with direct pay provisions for public power) to support “3R” investments, as well as a significant further investment in the almost 50 percent of hydropower generation owned by the federal government.


Without question, hydropower is an essential part of a climate solution in the United States. Cherry-picking global data that isn’t relevant to conditions in the United States will not change that outcome. And with 13 gigawatts of installed hydropower capacity up for expensive and uncertain relicensing over the next decade, Congress should seize on this opportunity to act boldly to ensure that these facilities aren’t at risk.

Ultimately, this comes down to whether we value our clean energy resources. Funding the “3Rs” framework will preserve and expand our nation’s hydropower resources, while also enhancing the safety of communities and the health of our rivers. 

We urge Congress to include the Twenty-First Century Dams Act as part of reconciliation. 

Malcolm Woolf is the president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association.