The Wild Life of Dams: Coalition forms to give a dam about the future

Illustration of a salmon jumping out of the water | Shutterstock / Artem Efimov
Shutterstock / Artem Efimov

As impacts from climate change become more obvious, an alliance has formed between groups from opposite sides of the hydropower debate. A joint statement signed in October between hydropower developers and several environmental groups signals an intent to cooperate on a number of issues related to dams, both powered and nonpowered, largely in recognition of their important role in generating emissions-free electricity. The statement, out for review by an expanded group of stakeholders, identifies a range of shared priorities in terms of how to evaluate dam conditions and where future investments should be directed.

While wind power is now the largest renewable electricity source, hydropower accounted for 6.6% of total U.S. utility- scale electricity generation and 38% of utility-scale renewable electricity in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It’s a low-cost resource, with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions aside from methane produced by the decomposition of flooded plant life. Dams can have other environmental impacts on fish and wildlife, however, and their development has flooded thousands of acres of land often important to tribal nations’ history and traditions. These factors have often put river conservation advocates at odds with dam operators.

However, an effort started about two years ago helped find common ground between conservationists and hydropower backers. It was spearheaded by the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, both headquartered at Stanford University, along with the Energy Futures Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based group focused on climate change solutions. The common denominator is Dan Reicher, a senior research scholar with the first group, founding executive director for the second and a distinguished associate with the third. Reicher is a former U.S. assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy and a board member of the Washington, D.C.-based conservation group American Rivers.

Reicher helped lead the conversations that culminated in the joint statement, which focuses strictly on the more than 90,000 dams currently in place in U.S. waterways, of which only 2,500 are currently generating electricity. A whopping 30% of those electrified dams are up for relicensing in just the next 10 years, which, Reicher said, was a motivator for many hydropower backers. Additionally, the group came up with a system it calls the “three Rs”—rehabilitate, retrofit and remove—for classifying the condition of existing dams, which helped focus potential future planning.

“The thing that surprised me is how few dams generate electricity, and I think it surprised a lot of people,” Reicher said.

Over the course of six meetings, the groups came to favor what’s called basin-scale planning over one-off discussions about each individual dam.

“By looking at a basin scale, you can often do a better job of assessing what the real needs are of a river and its communities,” Reicher said, adding that it also can make relicensing proceedings more efficient.

This was the approach used in the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which brought together electric utility PPL Corp., Allentown, Pa., the Penobscot Nation tribal government, local agencies and conservation groups. The impetus was PPL’s desire to relicense 10 of its generating dams along the Penobscot River in Maine. The river is an important waterway for migratory fish, including endangered Atlantic salmon. In the final agreement, PPL sold three dams closest to where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Two dams have been removed, and the third has been rehabilitated to include a bypass for fish passage.

Dam removal occurred in 2012, which, with the addition of the fish bypass, opened up 1,000 miles of the watershed to transiting salmon, herring and eels. In 2019, a three-year program began seeding the river with 5,000 adult salmon per year, with hopes their eggs will kick-start a reboot of that species’ falling migration numbers in the Penobscot. Additionally, PPL’s efforts to retrofit its remaining dams have actually boosted total electricity production, making up for any lost generation from the two removed dams.

After addressing any resulting comments and concerns from the review process, Reicher has hopes for a more formal coalition to form to advocate for increased dam funding focused on the three-Rs approach.

“We just don’t have the dollars we need to do what we need to do with dams, at this point, there’s a crying need for resources across the three Rs,” he said, though the spirit of cooperation that enabled the joint statement gives him hope.

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer

Chuck Ross has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. Contact him at chuck@chuck-ross.com.

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