Reaffirming hydroelectric power’s role in President Donald Trump’s energy policy, the Hon. Mark Menezes, Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, said the emphasis for the federal government is funding research and streamlining licensing.
“It is a hallmark of the department and this administration to stress and emphasize innovation over regulation,” said Menezes, speaking during the opening keynote session at Waterpower Week in Washington earlier today. “When the two come together, they create a powerful force, a sustained strength and an irresistible push to a brighter future.”
The multi-pronged approach outlined by Menezes puts large focuses on pumped storage, small hydro and marine hydrokinetics — all of which could, according to DOE, see significant growth should technology and regulatory processes make them more economically competitive.
“I want to assure you that renewable power — especially hydropower and marine energy — play a key role in this administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Menezes said. “They increase our energy diversity and can strengthen our grid resiliency. That’s why renewables, along with energy storage and energy efficiency, are critical elements of our overall energy policy and economic policy.”
Improving conditions for pumped hydro
According to DOE’s Hydropower Vision report, up to 65 GW of conventional and pumped storage could be added to the United States’ generation mix by 2050. And though Menezes acknowledged the importance of pumped storage as a means of offsetting the intermittency of the country’s growing solar and wind fleets, there are still a number of challenges that inhibit its growth.
“First, new pumped storage — like all hydro — is difficult to build with long permitting timelines and high capital costs,” Menezes said. “And second, increasing resources like wind and solar on the grid make it harder to predict when the resources are needed, which makes system planning difficult.”
Solving these issues will require a better understanding of pumped storage’s role in the overall grid, though the government is looking to address these via a request for $20 million in funding for its “Beyond Batteries” study in the 2019 federal budget.
“This research will develop technologies to make pumped storage cheaper, and easier to install and permit,” Menezes said. “It will also use data analytics to optimize hydropower and pumped storage operations in order to make them more flexible, while minimizing costs.”
Making small hydro cheaper
Up to 15 GW of DOE’s projected new capacity could come from small hydropower projects, though the nature of adding generating capacity to many existing small and low-head locations make the economically ineffective.
“That’s why the standardization of small hydropower designs and components is one of the great opportunities for reducing costs and increasing adaptability for the unique circumstances of specific sites,” Menezes said. “That’s where DOE’s technical and scientific capabilities are critical, and why we’ve initiated research into new, smaller and standardized modular hydropower systems.”
Pilot programs that use the sort of modular components described by DOE are already in-progress, while the bureau will continue using its leverage to bolster research via private/public partnerships with its national laboratories.
“At the department, we’re proud to have supported the development of new technologies which are helping reduce the costs and environmental impacts of new hydropower projects,” the undersecretary said.
Putting American MHK on the global stage
Though Europe has been almost universally accepted as the world leader in marine energy research and development, Menezes said the U.S. has done much to establish itself as a new power via the portfolio it has developed over the past decades.
“While the potential is promising, these technologies face considerable technological and testing infrastructure challenges,” said Menezes, noting the U.S. has the potential for more than 18,000 TWh per year of marine energy potential. “DOE’s early-stage R&D will continue to address both of these challenges. We’ll support innovative solutions to these challenges wherever they can be found.”
Evidence of this support is already being seen — notably through a filing by DOE partner Oregon State University last week that could lead to the construction of a 20 MW marine energy test site off the Oregon coast. The site would allow up to 20 pre-approved partners to test their equipment in real-world conditions, driving the sector toward commercial feasibility.
Defining hydro’s place in America’s renewable future
Hydropower has a key role in the U.S.’ grid of the future, though its growth will require additional tools to help developers navigate the regulatory process.
“DOE will be funding Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to conduct a new scientific analysis of the hydropower regulatory process,” Menezes said. “The goal of that analysis is to provide new data to all hydropower stakeholders, including developers and regulators, and then hopefully use that data to expedite the licensing process.”
But, getting there will not be accomplished by DOE alone.
“The real potential goes deeper,” Menezes said. “It’s the potential of all of us here. Not only to draw upon hydropower’s sustained strength, but to create, to shape, to innovate, and to use all of our imagination and ingenuity.
“That’s our promise, and that’s the future we can build together.”