Hydropower getting its day

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At a time when coal generation is being phased out and electricity demand is on the rise, utilities are increasingly shifting energy policy to a focus on renewable sources.

The U.S. is endowed with significant hydropower potential with about 96,000 megawatts of conventional hydropower capacity as of 2009, according to the Department of Energy.

Solar and wind dominate the discussion, and both industries are enjoying rapid growth. Water can also be a powerful source of energy; however it is often left out of the discussion and is ripe for development. Renewable energy critics are quick to point out that wind doesn't always blow and the sun sets, but water rarely dries up. It covers the majority of the Earth, and converting its kinetic energy into electricity looms as an energy security and reliability game-changer.

Renewables without intermittency

Many people think of traditional hydropower as nothing more than a dam and a turbine, but this is changing. Modern technology is capable of harnessing tidal movement as well as deep ocean wave energy, and the industry is beginning to break into utility-scale projects.

"It's a really exciting time," said Chad Marriott, an energy development attorney, speaking at the recent RETECH conference in Washington, D.C. "We have a lot of really smart people with great ideas and the end goal is to get commercial deployment of devices that will make some money."

The U.S. is endowed with significant hydropower potential with about 96,000 megawatts of conventional hydropower capacity as of 2009, according to the Department of Energy. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved 15 new hydro projects approved so far for 2012, and it's estimated that the U.S. overall has the potential for 1,200 terawatt hours of wave energy alone.

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Many people think of traditional hydropower as nothing more than a dam and a turbine, but this is changing. ___________________________

Regulatory and testing hang-ups

In the U.S., hydropower licensing falls under FERC jurisdiction. In addition, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is responsible for all offshore renewable energy programs, including grants, leases and easements. BOEM also conducts environmental reviews for offshore renewable projects. In July 2012, two organizations jointly announced new regulations for marine and hydro kinetic proposals. It's a key part of an evolving effort to make hydro project development more affordable and prevalent.

"We are trying to promote a more efficient process for authorizing these types of research and testing activities," said Robert Labelle, senior advisor to the director at BOEM.

Ann Miles, deputy director of FERC's Office of Energy Projects, praised what she sees as procedural certainty and concrete timelines complex hydro project applications, and solid progress in adapting to small-impact projects such as irrigation canals and water supply pipes. Some of these have been approved in as few as two months.

With that in mind, there are still regulatory challenges to tackle.

"We have this conundrum of needing to get some projects in the water to be able to test the technology, test the energy resource and test the environmental effects. Yet we didn't have enough information to do the environmental reviews to get there," Miles noted.

In an effort to solve this problem, the U.S. Department of Energy this year announced the $4 million Pacific Marine Energy Center, an open sea test facility for wave-energy technology that will allow developers to turn prototypes into grid-scale applications.

Partnership opportunities

The U.S. only need look north to get a glimpse of the robust potential of hydropower. Canada gets 60 percent of its entire generation from hydro sources (more than eight times the United States' 7 percent), according to Jacob Irving, President of the Canadian Hydropower Association.

Speaking at  RETECH, he highlighted Canada's 74,000 megawatt hours of installed hydropower capacity, but noted also that the country has another 163,000 megawatts of still undeveloped generation potential. Irving said Canada is also working to raise awareness and support of a power interconnection with the United States.

"We support each other, and as you can see, Canada has the potential to help out a whole lot more," he said. "All that we require is a signal from U.S. customers that there is interest in it and we'll be there."