US hydropower and environmental groups find common ground in tackling climate
Stanford University’s Dan Reicher is a former US assistant secretary of energy, director of climate and energy initiatives at Google, and currently a clean energy investor and board member of the conservation group American Rivers. Over the past two-and-a-half years he has brought together US environmental groups and the hydropower industry to tackle the climate crisis.
The result is the Joint Statement of Collaboration on US Hydropower: Climate Solution and Conservation Challenge, which identifies areas of common ground to advance the renewable energy and electricity storage benefits of hydropower and the environmental and economic benefits of healthy rivers. Here, we find out how the project brought together these unlikely collaborators, and what it means for US rivers, clean energy, and the global climate crisis.
What part did you play in bringing together the US hydropower industry and environmental conservation groups?
I have been in the renewable energy investment and policy world for decades, but I’m also a whitewater kayaker and a board member of American Rivers, the leading U.S. river conservation group. Until recently I’ve kept these two parts of my life separate. But increasingly I recognised that hydropower has a significant role to play in decarbonisation, both as an important renewable energy resource and in helping integrate variable solar and wind into the electric grid. I also knew from personal experience that dams have serious impacts on US rivers. So it dawned on me that it was time to get the warring parties – the US hydropower industry and the environmental community – together to see whether they might find common ground to address climate change. We launched and guided the discussion through Stanford University’s Uncommon Dialogue initiative, with help from former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and his Energy Futures Initiative.
How difficult was it to get them together?
There was deep distrust. In the US we’ve had tensions for more than 100 years between conservationists and dam builders. Bringing these groups together has been attempted before, but without success.
The big difference between then and now is the climate crisis. Our rivers are extremely vulnerable to the compounding factors of a changing climate, habitat loss and alteration of river processes. I often ask, what have we really accomplished in river conservation if climate change either fries or floods the rivers we love? So the opportunity was to chart hydropower’s role in confronting the climate crisis while also advancing healthy rivers.
The development of personal relationships in this dialogue really helped make this happen. With 25 people at the table for two-and-a-half years, significant personal relations were established allowing us to finally make progress on some serious tensions.
Bob Irvin, CEO of American Rivers, built a relationship with Malcolm Woolf, President of the US National Hydropower Association. That was key, because these two organisations have been major antagonists for decades. Folks on both sides of the table were acquainted with each other through official channels: fighting in the courts, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, other agencies, and Congress. But they had never spent time working together in the more personal way that we enabled.
What have you accomplished in terms of river conservation if the climate crisis either fries or floods the rivers you love?
What are some of the steps outlined in the Joint Statement?
The practical focus in all of our work is what we call the “Three Rs”: rehabilitation, retrofit and removal of US dams. Rehabilitation means you make dams safer and improve their environmental performance. Retrofit means you replace old inefficient turbines in a hydropower dam with new ones or you power a non-powered dam. Of the 90,000 U.S. dams recognised by the US government, 87,500 do not generate electricity, but instead were built for flood control, water supply, recreation etc., so there is a real opportunity there. Or you add pumped storage at an existing dam or build a new off-river pumped storage facility. Removal is the third option. A key reason we reached an agreement was that, for the first time, the US hydropower industry was willing to talk about dam removal. This was critical because some dams no longer serve any useful purpose, have safety issues that cannot be cost-effectively mitigated, or have adverse environmental impacts that cannot be effectively addressed. Removal is often the top option.
In phase two of the Uncommon Dialogue, we will develop concrete actions in each of these areas and we’ll have key parties at the table do so: states, tribal nations, NGOs, the business community, academic experts and federal agencies such as the US Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers. I’m hopeful that the incoming Biden administration, with its aggressive climate, clean energy and conservation goals, will also join us.
I knew that hydropower had a role to play in decarbonisation both as an important renewable energy resource and through its ability to integrate variable solar and wind into the system.
What contribution can hydropower make to accelerating the US energy transition?
Hydropower and pumped storage are a significant part of our North American clean energy grid. The wind and solar industries are also interested in hydropower and pumped storage to firm up their variable generation. With the increasing ability to operate hydropower projects and pumped storage facilities to integrate variable solar and wind, we can move faster and more cheaply to a low-carbon economy. Hydropower is also being given a fresh look in combination with other technologies, such as battery storage and hydrogen production. At the same time, I can’t emphasise enough that we must focus on the environmental and economic benefits of healthy rivers. Unless US hydropower investment and river conservation go hand in hand – via the Three Rs – we are not going to make the progress that drove us to launch the Uncommon Dialogue in the first place.