Reframing Pumped Hydropower
By: Elliott Jackson, Electrical Engineer, HDR, Inc.
With the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the American electric grid is set to see a windfall of incentives and investment in wind, solar, geothermal, battery energy storage and hydropower. The Infrastructure Bill includes funding for renewable energy demonstration projects, including $84 million for enhanced geothermal systems, $100 million for wind energy, and $80 million for solar energy. While this is certainly helpful for America to achieve a greener grid and future, it is sure to exacerbate a growing problem the grid has been experiencing since the advent of wind and solar power popularity, which is what to do with the excess energy when more power is produced than is being consumed.
One industry that aims to solve this problem is the battery energy storage industry. They are set to receive $355 million for energy storage demonstration projects and pilot grant programs, $150 million for a long-duration demonstration initiative and joint program, and approximately $825 million for mineral security projects. While the buildout of battery storage shows promise in its ability to offset off-peak generation in small amounts, it is critical that the capacity of America’s energy storage systems match the rate at which more non-dispatchable generation is built.
Thankfully, the hydropower industry was not forgotten in the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Hydropower is set to receive $125 million for hydroelectric production incentives, $75 million for hydroelectric efficiency improvement incentives, $553 million for hydroelectric resiliency upgrades, and $10 million appropriated in $2 million increments for a pumped storage demonstration project to facilitate long-duration storage of intermittent renewable energy. This last allotment of money mentioned is especially critical for America’s green energy future as it shows a direct acknowledgement of the important role hydropower technology can play as our electric grid is modernized.
Being our nation’s first renewable energy technology, hydropower is not often seen as a technology of the future to most lay people looking in from outside the energy industry. When energy storage technologies are mentioned as the next cutting-edge technology of the renewable energy movement, hydropower is again commonly forgotten about, as most people immediately think of the energy storage they are most familiar with: batteries. Pumped storage facilities, however, not only use technology we have relied on for over a century but have an out of the box energy storage capacity that dwarfs what is currently developed with conventional battery systems. Simply put, pumped storage facilities are the equivalent of giant water batteries. By pumping water upwards into a higher elevation reservoir for future use during times of excess generation from wind, solar, and other non-dispatchable sources, the excess power is converted to potential energy that can be used at later times when the grid experiences an unexpected drop in generation or a rise in demand. As with conventional hydropower, pumped storage systems also provide the benefit of being capable of almost immediate demand response, with units being able to start at rest to generating at full capacity in a matter of minutes.
The recent advances in variable-speed technology have also offered pumped storage projects the ability to provide frequency regulation and ramping services to the grid when operators are pumping or absorbing excess power in the pump mode.
The growing divide between non-dispatchable, variable generation and predictable daily energy demand continues to grow, and while the Infrastructure Bill is sure to make large gains in the buildout of new renewables, this problem is sure to worsen without an equal growth of energy storage systems. Pumped storage is a reliable and proven large-scale energy storage resource that is not currently seeing the same accelerated expansion as conventional battery storage technologies. The benefits of the hydropower industry’s “water batteries” are numerous, and if we are to see the same expansion of this type of hydropower facility, it is imperative that more of the general public begin to think of hydropower as synonymous with the green energy transition that America is quickly approaching.
How can Build Back Better not include a staple like hydropower?
According to the most recently available data from the State of Oregon, hydropower represents 37% of our resource mix, coal 27%, natural gas 25%, wind 5%, and solar around 1%.
The Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Western Montana, is the largest hydropower producing region in the nation, representing about 40% of US hydropower output.
It’s no coincidence the Northwest can boast the most affordable clean energy, the lowest energy burden, and the least carbon-intensive grid in the United States. A primary reason states like Oregon and Washington have been able to pass 100% clean energy standards in recent years is the head start our hydropower resources have provided.
Hydropower really matters here.
However, perhaps because we’re tucked away in a corner of the United States, far away from Washington DC, hydropower has been left out of many tax incentives for renewable energy.
Wind and solar power have been beneficiaries, and even nuclear power has money earmarked in the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better bill, also known as the reconciliation bill, currently being worked on in Congress. Hydropower has not been added into the bill yet, and this matters to the 32 Oregon hydropower projects that stand to benefit from this infrastructure when they get relicensed in the coming decade.
While these carbon-free resources are going to be important in our region’s decarbonization efforts, none will be as important as hydropower. Other than pumped storage facilities, there aren’t plans to build new hydropower dams in the region, but maintaining our existing fleet of productive hydropower resources is critical. For every megawatt of hydropower we lose, it puts us further behind in our effort to decarbonize the grid, which still has a long way to go. Our existing hydropower fleet is also crucial to provide 24x7 energy, which wind and solar cannot do by themselves.
Which brings us to a very important opportunity. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state has co-authored the Twenty-First Century Dams Act. This proposed act is the result of a collaborative effort by American Rivers, the National Hydropower Association, and others which came together as part of the Uncommon Dialogue.
While these advocacy groups have often been at odds, they reached this landmark agreement in 2020 for cooperation to help upgrade and renovate productive hydropower dams, while removing obsolete dams to improve the health of rivers.
As part of the Twenty-First Century Dams Act, dam operators would receive a 30% tax incentive (or direct payment for public power utilities) for these critical efforts.
Given the context of climate change, this provision is important to the entire US, but given the prevalence of hydropower in our region, there is probably nowhere it is more vital than in the Pacific Northwest.
Right now, this extraordinary opportunity rests with Senator Wyden, who supports the bill. In a press statement, the Senator stated, “In order to support the production of hydropower in Oregon and across the U.S., there must be a concerted effort to modernize dams across every nook and cranny of the country,” Wyden said. “The Twenty-First Century Dams Act is a bipartisan push to do just that, investing over $25 billion to enhance dam safety, improve hydroelectric generation and reconnect thousands of miles of streams through voluntary removal of aging dams.”
We encourage you to write to Senator Wyden and ask him to see this vision through. We have a unique opportunity to make a huge different for the Pacific Northwest and the USA in support of hydropower.
-Kurt Miller, Executive Director of Northwest RiverPartners and Brenna Vaughn, Executive Director of NWHA
hydropower keeps trash out of oceans
Each year, dam owners and hydroelectric power producers capture and remove tons of man-made debris, trash, and garbage from our lakes and rivers. This reduces the load on what is entering our oceans where there is currently a large focus on cleaning the oceans of the floating trash and plastic. The most notable of these efforts is that of the OceanCleanup® which is targeting the 5 large swirling trash fields in the ocean. Inland, however, is challenging and this is where dam owners have a tremendous opportunity to tout their contribution in preventing plastics and other trash from reaching the ocean where it will break down into microplastics to disrupt the global food chain in incomprehensible ways.
Dams are, for lack of a better term, “walls”. These walls stop trash and debris. When you drive past a dam you may see this trash and debris piling up behind the intakes and gates. The dam owner did not create this problem, nor did the dam owner put the trash in the water. But the owner’s dam is preventing that trash from reaching the ocean. Through the use of trash racks, rakers and traveling screens, dam owners pull hundreds of tons of debris from our lakes and rivers every year. That is debris that no longer will make its way to the oceans. Yes, the industry is doing a good job at removing debris but opportunity exists yet still to increase that effort in a way that is a good steward of the environment.