Dams could make U.S. energy independent

 By Chris Dalby

The U.S. is surging ahead in terms of the diversity of its energy matrix. It is growing closer to becoming a net energy exporter, with fracking unlocking its oil production, and with the private sector enjoying the ever cheaper solar and wind boom…

Despite progress toward energy independence, this enviable status is still a little way away. With announcements such as the World Bank ending all support of the oil and gas industry, and tensions with suppliers such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. should be considering all options to reach its target.
One energy source which has been a mainstay in many countries is not currently a major part of the U.S. energy matrix is hydro. In 2016, installed hydro capacity in the U.S. accounted for 7 percent of the total, while capacity has only been increasing at around 200 MW a year, showing how this is not a priority for Washington or energy firms. The infrastructure plan of President Donald Trump does not mention hydropower construction, despite its accessibility. This is surprising as the U.S.’ abundance of rivers, lakes and shores should make this indispensable.
Deloitte, in a report on the U.S.’ energy independence and security, says that reaching this goal is easily within the country’s grasp. “When imports from Canada and Mexico are subtracted, the real major energy independence and security challenges of the U.S. energy portfolio amount to between 10 and 15 percent of our overall energy supplies—a challenge that is well within the economic, industrial and policy capabilities of the United States to tackle,” it writes. Why is the U.S. letting this seemingly golden opportunity slip by? One is a question of awareness. The country has so many dams that there is a feeling the sector has been tapped up. However, 90 percent of dams in the U.S., or around 80,000, are not used to produce electricity. The Department of Energy found that simply installing hydropower plants at existing dams could add 12 GW of new power to the U.S. without any major new infrastructure.

Glen Canyon dam, Lake Powell (Sidvics, Wikimedia)

According to the National Hydropower Association, “the U.S. hydropower industry currently employs 300,000 workers and is supported by more than 2,500 companies across the country.” Far from also being clumped or grouped into specific areas, the Association charts these companies as being located in every state and believes they could unlock 1.1 million more jobs by 2025.
American dam infrastructure is in a critical condition. Some dams have been crumbling, yet little has been done to repair or rehabilitate them. A recent New York Times report says 2,000 high-hazard dams were listed as needing repair in 2015 and that a full 70 percent of all dams nationwide will be 50 years old or more by 2020. “It’s not like an expiration date for your milk, but the components that make up that dam do have a lifespan.” said Mark Ogden, a project manager with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Unsexy infrastructure?
Infrastructure renewal has been the subject of numerous political pledges but little action for years. Some of this has been attributed to the idea being “unsexy,” despite how dependent America’s image is on its infrastructure. However, the price tag may be a more understandable reason. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials puts the bill for repairing all dams in need of upgrading to $60 billion, according to the New York Times, including $20 billion for the most hazardous dams. To even move some of that cash in their direction, a new image as a 21st century resource may be what dams need.
Viewing dams as potential sources of clean power would encourage broad investment in the electric grid, upgrade or build new plants, repair the dams themselves and even the roads and bridges around them.
Taking into account the potential for new infrastructure shows how glaring a missed opportunity not maximizing the potential contribution of hydropower has been. Hydropower, and specifically pumped storage, is also superior for providing storage to help integrate renewables and is a strategic asset that provides more flexible generation and energy security. Pumped storage is the only viable utility scale storage solution and consists of pumping or generating by moving energy in the form of water through a powerhouse between an upper and lower reservoir.
Nate Sandvig, director of the National Grid in Oregon and fellow at the Truman Project, writes that “the U.S. currently has the equivalent of more than 10 Hoover dams of pumped storage capacity… and at least 26 Hoover dams-worth of pumped storage projects in various stages of permitting.”

Seneca pumped storage generating station above Kinzua dam, Allegheny River (Margaret Luzier, Wikimedia)

Furthermore, such an embracing of hydro would have a knock-on effect for other renewable sources. The expansion and refurbishment of current dams, along well-chosen additions, would allow hybrid facilities to operate, bringing in wind and solar generation.
“With the build-out of several of these proposed facilities, this innovative technological marvel complements and is key for balancing existing and future intermittent resources like wind and solar,” adds Sandvig.

Other Countries
Certainly, the idea is not a unanimous one. Some environmental groups have pointed to the pollution and ecosystem damage wrought by such dams in South America, especially Brazil. A 2011 data analysis of how risky different energy sources are showed hydropower caused 1-1.6 deaths per terawatt/hour (TWh) generated, below nuclear and natural gas, but far safer than coal. However, most of these deaths have happened in countries without the safety track record of the U.S., such as China and Brazil. Particularly deadly single tragedies can even skew the numbers downward across the board. While the U.S. has its own legacy of dam failures, technology has evolved, health and safety awareness has improved and, as seen earlier, inaction will certainly lead to disaster.
Rejuvenating its dam industry, in the name of safety, clean energy and economic growth make this policy a needed one. It may also help the U.S. achieve that mythical status: energy independence.

READ MORE: The road to 100% renewable energy by Robin Wylie

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.