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Regional Hydropower Potential Scoping Study

NWHA was awarded a contract by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in August 2014 to complete a Regional Hydropower Potential Scoping Study to assess a broad number of studies indicating potential hydropower for the Northwest region. The report was presented in a webinar to the Council's Generation Resource Advisory Committee (GRAC). The GRAC is reviewing potential power in the Northwest for the Seventh Power Plan, which will cover 2015-2035 for the Northwest region.

A PowerPoint presentation of the study is available here in PDF format.

NWHA reviewed 24 studies--Appendix A of the report provides links to the studies and Appendix B provides parameters of what each study addressed. The most recent study was performed by the US Department of Energy in April 2014 and indicated that, 32% of all future hydropower in the nation could be available from the Northwest. The amount of power capacity the report addresses is equal to 76% of the current hydro development now in place and would provide 118% of the existing generation output. However, the "Protected Areas" designations of the Council's Fish and Wildlife Program would preclude 88% of that resource unless a new project could provide "exceptional benefits to fish and wildlife." (see Addendum).

In addition to reviewing the studies, which provided a very broad range of what may be available from future hydropower generation, NWHA conducted a survey and reviewed current FERC applications (Appendix C).

Hydropower is Renewable Energy

Hydroelectric power is clean, renewable power. Its supply of fuel is water, which uses no fossil fuels and produces no emissions. Each year, the supply of water in the Northwest’s river is renewed through the natural water cycle. In the winter, snow falls and is stored in the mountains. In the spring, that water begins to melt and returns to the river through a network of streams that feed back into larger lakes and rivers. By June, rivers are generally at their fullest (because the snow has finally melted) and river levels can begin to decline. Throughout this cycle, water weaves its way through the west’s river systems on its way to the ocean. Hydropower turbines are driven by this downstream movement of river water (see the Hydropower Operations page for more information). Since hydropower does not deplete its “fuel” source as it generates electricity from the action of falling water, it is innately a renewable energy resource.

Hydropower supports alternative renewable power

Many hydropower owners have long objected to the tendency of policymakers to exclude hydropower from the definition of renewable and therefore from legislation and public policy initiatives designed to promote renewable energy. Indeed, efforts to provide incentives for renewable energy development generally focus on so-called alternative forms of renewable power. Because hydropower is considered a mature technology, the nearly interchangeable use of the words “alternative power” and “renewable power” has left hydropower’s renewable status virtually ignored. Excluding hydropower from efforts to encourage renewable technology is a mistake; however, since hydropower generation can complement generation from these alternative renewable sources. With their unique ability to follow electricity demand, hydropower facilities can firm up the load carrying capacity of renewable generators that need help compensating for their problems with intermittency. Hydropower generation can be the perfect partner for less predictable renewable resources such as wind and solar generation. In fact, the Northwest must rely on its hydropower assets to turn the variable output of wind power into a more dependable resource.

Hydropower generation avoids emissions

Hydropower operators make use of the ability to store water and regulate river flow to ensure that this clean energy source is available when the public needs electricity. By releasing or retaining water at certain times of the year, hydropower operators can ensure water is available to meet peak energy demand when it is needed most. Some dams even have the ability to help regulate water by the hour or minute to help meet sharp but temporary spikes in electric demand. This ability to meet temporary peak loads in electric demand can prevent the need for utilities to keep fossil fuel generation on stand-by to serve this highly variable electric load. In this way, use of hydropower generation helps avoid the release of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel generation.

New hydropower potential exists

Despite assumptions in some quarters that hydropower is a mature or "tapped out" technology, significant new potential for hydropower exists. Additional capacity exists at many current hydropower facilities. Incentives to encourage efficiency improvements and capacity upgrades at existing hydropower facilities would increase our nation’s renewable energy supply. Congress took steps in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and recent tax extender legislation to authorize production tax credits (Production Tax Credit) and tax-credit bonding authority (Clean Renewable Energy Bonds) for incremental hydropower. Many utilities are working to increase the efficiency of their current assets. Currently, the federal government is also studying the potential for increasing electric power production capability at federally-owned water regulation, storage and conveyance projects.

There are also new, undeveloped sites for hydropower generation. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 required the Bureau of Reclamation is to submit a report to Congress identifying and describing the status of potential hydropower facilities included in water surface storage studies undertaken by the Department of Energy that have not been completed or authorized for construction. On November 8, 2005, BOR submitted a comprehensive inventory of Western water storage and hydroelectric projects to the U.S. House Committee on Resources and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. See the Sec. 1840 BOR report on hydropower.

Finally, while environmental restrictions have stifled large-scale development of hydropower potential in this country, smaller hydropower technologies exist that can play a role in the trend toward distributed generation. Technologies such as the application of micro-turbines to public water systems, storm water systems, and small irrigation hydropower should be encouraged by renewable energy legislative efforts. In addition, new types of hydropower technologies are also being developed.

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