Waterpower’s Window of Opportunity

By their very nature, windows of opportunity do not remain open very long. It’s important that those having interests in the future of waterpower in the U.S. act now.

Late in 2007, the U.S. Congress appropriated funds for waterpower research and development – $10 million was approved for R&D during Fiscal Year 2008 (ending September 30, 2008). After the 2007 funding drought – when federal R&D funds were zero – waterpower is back on the screen.

This new appropriation owes directly to the efforts of organizations and individuals that have been informing, educating, and lobbying Congress about needs and opportunities in the waterpower arena. The National Hydropower Association (NHA) and others have been busy advocating both “conventional” hydro interests and, notably, new approaches, especially in the areas of ocean, tidal, and in-stream flow technologies.

Now the industry’s challenge is to work with the appropriate federal agencies toward ensuring that the monies are well-spent in the pursuit of meaningful results. To be sure, there’s a multiplicity of problems, needs, and opportunities that could arguably make good use of many times the amount of the appropriated funds.

However, as an industry we would be well-advised to understand that Congress is our client, and Congress will likely want more than the mere solution of industry problems. By this allocation of $10 million, Congress is priming the pump – giving waterpower interests the chance to show that the industry can, indeed, make meaningful new contributions to energy supply.

The subliminal message is: “Show me the gigawatts.”

In a nation having about 1,100 GW of existing electrical generation capacity, and far too great an appetite for imported energy (oil), producing more energy from domestic – and, especially, renewable – sources is viewed as more than desirable, even mandatory. So, from Congress’ perspective, how can this goal most readily be achieved? Options include:

    Coal – The available resource is large. However, work needs to be done to clean up the process, from mining through carbon dioxide capture and sequestration.

    Nuclear – Another large resource, requiring technology improvements and more work to ensure that the process, beginning to end, is both safe and worthy of citizens’ confidence.

    Natural Gas – The resource is tapped out. In case you hadn’t noticed, utility’s obsessive installation of natural gas-fueled generators has led to natural gas being the largest source of U.S. generating capacity. Yet, owing to the high cost of natural gas that followed the installation craze of the past two decades, this capacity has become too expensive to operate but for a few hours per year.

    Wind – A rapidly growing new resource, which soon will exceed 20,000 MW of installed capacity. Wind has responded well to federal R&D investments and incentives – and undoubtedly, from Congress’ perspective, has provided good return on federal investments.

    Solar – While it may seem to many that solar remains an extreme option, recent German experience has demonstrated that if you’re prepared to pay, say, 40 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar power becomes attractive.


And what about waterpower?

With about 100,000 MW of conventional hydro (~80%) and pumped storage (~20%) generating capacity in the U.S., waterpower is a major contributor.

If U.S. hydro resources were developed to the extent that those in Europe are, we’d have twice as much waterpower-based generation. Both conventional hydro and pumped storage are great assets. Conventional hydro delivers needed clean, renewable energy, and pumped storage enables entire electrical networks to work more effectively and economically.

Further, waterpower’s new kids on the block – ocean, tidal, and in-stream flow-based power – offer untapped resources that we’re only beginning to understand. Yet they are promising, indeed, as a future source of power.

You can help: Seek to help out by doing what you can and by encouraging your organization to work with federal agencies on programs that can produce meaningful results. Participate with the NHA and other organizations in their efforts to continue to persuade Congress of the merits of waterpower resources.

Federal funding of waterpower R&D for FY2008 is a good start, yet it’s only a beginning.



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