Hydropower Boosting Bill Clears Key Committee

As national hydropower leader, WA would gain from bipartisan measure to create clean energy jobs

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-WA) bipartisan bill to increase hydropower production without building new dams passed a key Senate committee Tuesday, and will move forward to the full Senate. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) today approved the Hydropower Improvement Act (S.629), which would increase America’s hydropower capacity to generate more emissions-free electricity and create more clean energy jobs.

A study by Navigant Consulting, Inc. has shown that with the right policies, hydropower could create over 1.4 million cumulative direct, indirect, and induced jobs by 2025, with the highest potential for job creation in Washington state and California (between 180,000 and 220,000). Washington state newspapers the Columbian and the Centralia Chronicle have both voiced their support of the bill. The Interior Department recently released a report that found 70 of the existing structures owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, sites like dams, canals, and divergent structures, could increase our nation’s hydropower capacity in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way. The report identified several Bureau of Reclamation sites in Washington as “economically feasible” for greater hydropower efficiency including five Yakima dams (Easton Diversion, Sunnyside, Cle Elum, Keechelus, Kachess) and one Columbia Basin dam (Scootney Wasteway).

“With today’s committee approval of our bipartisan hydropower bill, we move one step closer to boosting the generation of clean, affordable, and emissions-free hydropower,” Senator Cantwell said. “Emissions-free hydropower is the backbone of Washington’s economy, providing around three quarters of our electricity, and keeping our rates among the lowest in the country. This bipartisan bill will help find ways to increase our nation's hydropower capacity without building new dams, improving air quality while creating new clean energy jobs.”

Introduced on March 17th, the Hydropower Improvement Act is led by Senator Cantwell, Chair of the ENR Subcommittee on Energy, and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), ENR Committee Ranking Member, and cosponsored by seven other Senators. The bill would grow the domestic supply of hydropower and spur job creation in an industry that employs more than 300,000 people.

Hydropower is the largest source of clean, renewable energy in the United States, and Washington state produces almost a third of the nation’s total. This affordable, emissions-free, and renewable power source has helped attract new business investments to the Pacific Northwest, including BMW’s selection of Moses Lake, WA, as the home of its only carbon fiber manufacturing facility in North America, and a host of new Internet data centers. Nearly 75 percent of Washington’s electricity is generated from hydropower, and the same dams irrigate Eastern Washington’s farms which produce top crops such as apples, cherries, hops, and wheat.

“What we like best about [Cantwell’s] Hydropower Improvement Act (introduced on Thursday) is that it takes a proven success – indeed the pride of the Northwest – and makes it even better,” the Columbian wrote in a March 20th editorial. “More than just a boost in power, this act would yield a significant increase in jobs.”

“Cantwell’s Act would call for a two-year process to determine which non-powered dams and other water storage projects would be suitable for power generation,” theCentralia Chronicle wrote on March 23rd. “It is a good start.”

Much of the nation’s new hydropower capacity can be gained by maximizing existing infrastructure and through the use of new technologies, such as upgrading turbines to produce more power with the same volume of water, and exploring the possibility of producing power at the 97 percent of America’s 80,000 dams that generate power today. There is also a lot of promise in water power applications that don’t require any dams, such as in-conduit devices, hydrokinetics, and closed-loop pumped storage.

The Hydropower Improvement Act would improve the development timeline for conduit and small hydropower projects and explore a two-year process for hydropower development at non-powered dams and closed-loop pumped storage projects. It establishes a competitive grants program and directs the Department of Energy to produce and implement a research, development, and deployment plan for increased hydropower capacity. The bill also calls for studies on increased development at Bureau of Reclamation facilities and in-conduit projects, as well as suitable pumped storage locations. The legislation does not authorize the construction of new dams.   

The bill’s cosponsors are Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mike Crapo (R-ID), James Risch (R-ID), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

For more information, see www.hydro.org.