Guest column | Reinvigorating hydropower

Chelan County PUD General Manager Steve Wright and other utility staff met recently with Rep. Mike Steele, Sen. Brad Hawkins, Rep. Gael Tarleton and Speaker of the House Frank Chopp to discuss fair treatment of hydropower. Rep. Keith Goehner (not shown) also attended.

Hydropower is a premier renewable energy resource from a cost, emissions and reliability perspective, but it’s been taken for granted for too long in the public policy arena. Federal, regional and state policies for the last decade have tended to support renewable generation but excluded hydropower. It’s time to recognize the tremendous value it can bring a modernized electric grid.

That’s why Chelan PUD and the National Hydropower Association (NHA) have joined together to release a new paper entitled “Reinvigorating Hydropower: A Cornerstone of a Clean, Affordable, Reliable Electric Grid.” Delivered at the NHA national conference on April 2, the paper is intended to lay out a call to action. An affordable, reliable, low-carbon future will only happen if policymakers incorporate hydropower into their policy prescriptions and the hydropower industry takes a long-term perspective.

The white paper identifies six actions:

Choose technology-neutral policies for achieving public policy goals: Public policies such as renewable portfolio standards and tax credits have tended toward promoting renewable power while excluding hydropower. We believe public policy should identify the outcome, such as carbon reduction, but not specify the technology to achieve the goal.

Design markets that are technology-neutral : The value of electricity is increasingly driven by how rules for electricity markets are written. These markets have tended not to value products that are necessary for grid reliability and stability that hydropower provides. Under-valuing these products creates unnecessary risk for consumers and reduces revenues that could be used to reinvest in the aging hydropower fleet.

Improve the hydro licensing process: It takes less time to license a fossil fuel burning resource than to relicense an existing hydropower project. There are good reasons to evaluate the impacts of hydropower projects because they utilize a public waterway. Policymakers though should consider the air emissions benefits of hydropower as the licensing process is reevaluated for streamlining and efficiency.

Invest in the future of hydropower : With much of the capability of the existing U.S. hydropower fleet having been built more than 20 years ago, there are opportunities to apply technology that could increase performance. In particular, new sensor technology can provide data that when accumulated across a large number of hydropower plants should lead to the avoidance of time consuming forced outages. That’s why Chelan PUD initiated the Hydropower Research Institute, which will accumulate and analyze large data sets to provide the industry more predictive maintenance.

Improve contracting and quality control practices to encourage long-term investment: The hydropower industry can help itself though an increased focus on enhancing quality. The goal should be to provide greater assurance that actual equipment life matches or exceeds its designed life. High quality equipment and operational practices lead to higher confidence in business cases for reinvestment in long life assets. A collaborative effort is necessary between manufacturers and project owners who have responsibility for operations. Chelan PUD has been working for more than a year on practices that could lead to longer term warranties and enhanced operational data sharing.

Include hydropower in meeting corporate sustainability goals: There is an expanding market for commercial and industrial customers who want to be served by 100 percent renewable or carbon-free electricity with an emphasis on new projects. These customers have organized and developed principles for the types of generating resources they are willing to buy. We believe these principles should include reinvestment in or new hydropower.

A good example of how these initiatives come into play can be found in the current Washington legislative debate over a clean energy bill. The proposed legislation is to be lauded for including hydropower as counting toward the goal of 100 percent clean. There are, however, provisions that extend tax breaks for renewables that exclude hydropower.

We appreciate that Sen. Brad Hawkins recently organized a series of meetings with legislative leaders where we were able to explain how hydropower provides nearly 70 percent of the electricity in Washington state, supports affordability and provides grid services necessary for reliability especially as generation that is not easily dispatched (wind and solar) is added to the generation fleet. We also appreciate that Rep. Mike Steele and Rep. Keith Goehner participated in meetings with key leaders in the House of Representatives.

What we are seeking is a level playing field for hydropower whether it be at the federal, regional or state level. With a level playing field, hydropower will be the legacy resource that provides the foundation for an advanced power system that meets the public’s desires for economic and environmental health.


Steve Wright is general manager of the Chelan County PUD.