By: Damien Quentin, ESG Leader, Americas, Copperleaf
With major geopolitical and environmental events having significant impact on the energy sector and many populations around the world, environmental justice has quickly become a complex and contentious topic of global conversation.
Environmental justice seeks to address the varying and disproportional degrees of climate change contribution and damage, and the impact on specific populations and places. Geographic and socioeconomic disparities can exacerbate climate impacts, resulting in people even within the same city experiencing climate effects differently. Some of the causes of these diverse impacts are the different levels of infrastructure investment and a community’s access to energy through reliability and affordability.
This is why energy equity will become a vital part of organizational strategy and capital planning in the energy transition and beyond. How you invest in energy infrastructure directly impacts the customers you serve. Making effective and equitable decisions will depend on how well energy companies understand the intersectional nature of environmental justice, how you account for tangible and intangible impacts of investments, and how you embrace the interplay between value, methodology, and technology.
Equity, sustainability, and accountability will drive capital planning strategy.
Public discourse has shifted towards placing more value on equity, sustainability, and accountability. The values of regulators, customers, and utilities reflect this renewed emphasis on environmental impact and social justice. We’re recognizing more than ever that where, how, and how much investment is injected into a community can directly impact the environment, people, and quality of life.
Knowing this, federal and state policy makers are requiring consideration of equity and environmental justice as an explicit objective of utility regulation. We've even seen large projects denied by regulators because of inadequate consideration of environmental impact on vulnerable populations. Utilities must prove their investment decisions account for climate change and sustainability efforts, as well as the disproportionate impacts of climate change due to differences in geography, and the socioeconomic factors within those geographies.
Measuring value on a common economic scale will be key to prioritizing and optimizing investments.
Because so many stakeholders (including utilities) within our energy ecosystem are increasingly valuing equitable considerations and investment, so too must these very utilities align capital plans with these shared values.
When utilities plan infrastructure investments for the year, and even the next 50 years, the best way to optimize decision making is through knowing and understanding what you value and how you assign value. To optimize investment planning, decisions must be both value-based and value-driven. But comparing the values of very different things (such as trade-offs between quantifiable returns and intangible impacts) is a challenging exercise when you don’t have a full picture of what you value and how you measure those values.
One fundamental part of the capital planning process will be building and applying a value framework to your investment plan. Identifying everything you value – from safety and reliability to sustainability and equity – and seeing the big picture of everything you value helps you prioritize spending by incorporating these values into your planning in a systematic way.
Technology will continue to be a strong enabler and defender of equitable decision making.
Organizing then analyzing your value inputs to produce data that informs new insights and effective decisions is where technology shines. The real opportunities for optimizing your investment decisions come when you combine a solid value framework with the right technology.
With continued innovation in the geospatial information systems (GIS) space like environmental justice screening tools, we’re also collecting new data and insights on how infrastructure planning and spending (and even emissions) can impact specific communities. This data includes geographic distribution of socioeconomic indicators like income, race, or education, so you can compare them with other equity metrics like outage rates, electrification access, or asset risk exposure.
When developing your infrastructure investment strategy, this information will help define the communities to engage and consult. Once you identify investment needs in underserved areas, you can set portfolio objectives, such as targets for service levels, safety and reliability risk, and risk mitigation.
Pairing environmental justice data with software solutions that use predictive analytics will support scenario planning, where you can compare possible outcomes of different investment options to choose only the plans that reduce the correlation between negative environmental impacts and specific populations.
The power of visualization that the right technology provides will bring benefits like regulatory filing efficiencies even with high-value rate cases. The science and art of transparent accountability becomes much more possible and comprehensible, making your equitable investment decisions even more defensible. Clearly demonstrating how your investment plans have awareness and understanding of tangible and social impacts – and creating plans that meet strategic objectives – builds trust and strengthens your relationships with regulators and customers.
Capital planning approaches will – and must – shift to reflect values that are here to stay.
We will continue to see and experience the convergence of environmental impact, social justice, energy transition, policy changes, and technological innovation. As a result, utilities will face more and more unique challenges that will require evolving pre-existing models into agile approaches fit for a changing world.
As we look to the future and how we’ll invest in it, anchoring approaches and decisions on value – whether financial or social – will be crucial for positioning and equipping your organization and communities to thrive together.
Want to learn more? Find out how Copperleaf can help you build capital plans that drive your Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) strategy here or reach out to the Copperleaf team here.
Confronting the challenge of the Silver Tsunami
Bree Mendlin, Program Director, Hydropower Foundation
Workforce Development in the aging hydropower industry is not for the faint of heart. Small but mighty, the Hydropower Foundation (HF) jumps headfirst into delivering programs and activities that offer a solution to the growing workforce challenges of the waterpower community. As a not-for-profit supporting clean, reliable, renewable energy, the Foundation produces tailored educational events to expose students to waterpower industries and the career opportunities that lay within. Specifically, students pursuing post-secondary education are hand-picked to learn about the industry, gain career support, and meet hiring organizations. Our successful and well-received programs engage the academic community and industry stakeholders to produce programs with an eye toward gaining the interest of the next-generation workforce.
Foundation Educational Programs have a strong brand with the academic community and potential employers. Starting with the marked success of the Research Awards Program(RAP), where 75% of the graduating fellows either continued their research in topics critical to hydropower or are working among us within the industry. Elliott Jackson from HDR and Mark Christian with EPRI are two graduates of our program. Next time you see them, be sure and ask them about their experience. Though RAP has come to a successful conclusion, the nuggets of success some of our newer programs are being realized as well. Internships, fellowships and actual employments are the direct result of the Foundation’s Hiring for Hydro™ and Hydro Think Tank™ programs. Shannon Kellam, Mechanical Engineer at Grant County PUD, and Annika Kallstrom, Power Business Technology Analyst at Chelan County PUD, are just two examples of students who participated in these programs, built relationships with the Foundation and other industry leaders. These programs provided them with an industry “mentor” to help them get a jump start on their careers. As we all know, it is not what you know; instead, it’s who you know. To quote Annika, “Thank you! Again, I really want to express how grateful I am for the Hydro Foundation and how Hiring for Hydro™ helped me get introduced to working in hydro. Keep up the good work!”
And there are others, a 2019 Hiring for Hydro participant, Zach Dunagan, recently shared his news of obtaining a position as a Mechanical Engineer in the hydropower group at General Electric. The programs are getting results. To continue this success, they need support. The support through funding and sponsorships as well as industry engagement by sharing your talents and volunteering to mentor our participants. Our work provides a proven solution to that significant challenge of how to attract, recruit, and prepare the next generation of the waterpower workforce.
Our hiring programs are only one of the tools in our tool box. Together with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Hydropower Foundation established the 2023 Hydropower Collegiate Competition (HCC). In its first year, HCC engages interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate and graduate students from various academic programs to attract a new set of skilled and diverse workers to modernize the U.S. hydropower fleet. The HCC mirrors the most successful Marine Energy Collegiate Competition (MECC), now in its third year. The mission behind these competitions is to show the next generation workforce the exciting career opportunities they could pursue, should they choose one of these industries.
Lastly, the Hydropower Foundation continues its efforts to attract more women to the hydropower industry through the Julie Keil Scholarship Fund for Women. This scholarship supports young women pursuing STEM degrees to chase career aspirations in any facet of hydropower. It was established in memory of one of the hydropower community’s finest, Julie Keil, who was lost too soon and significantly impacted all who knew her. The Keil scholarship is one of two that the Foundation now administers. We established the Mike Sale Memorial Scholarship to continue Sales’ amazing legacy. He was a favorite around the Hydropower Foundation, the National Hydropower Association (NHA), the Low Impact Hydro Institute (LIHI), and Oakridge National Lab, where he worked for most of his career. Mike had a vibrant passion for supporting the next generation in their pursuit of jobs in hydropower through researching topics relevant to the industry while completing graduate studies. The hope is to present the first award in the spring of 2023.
The Foundation’s workforce programs have a solid track record. The need for these types of programs is only growing. We need the engagement and support from the hydropower community to partner with us in this critical time to reach the next generation. There are many ways to get involved with the Hydropower Foundation, from helping us fundraise through sponsoring events, becoming a member, and volunteering. Get plugged in! Reach out to Bree@hydrofoundation.org for more information.
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.
Members and Guest Writers from the Northwest Hydroelectric Association