As the North American power industry rapidly decarbonizes, one clean energy resource may not be getting the attention it deserves. Hydropower is one of the core technologies providing a significant amount of carbon-free baseload and energy storage capacity throughout much of North America. With appropriate investment and better coordination among federal agencies, could hydro become an even more prominent part of the clean energy picture in the years to come?

Underutilized Resource

With more than 80 gigawatts (GW) of existing capacity in the U.S. and another 23 GW of storage, hydro is an essential part of the U.S. energy mix. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), hydro facilities generated 291 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity in 2020, providing 7.3% of the power utilized by American consumers.

Of the more than 90,000 dams in the U.S., however, only about 2,500 are equipped with the turbines needed to produce power. Those hydropower facilities are primarily located in six states — Washington, Oregon, New York, California, Alabama and Tennessee. Although most dams were built primarily for flood control and to create water supply reservoirs, some of these facilities have the potential to be retrofitted with turbines and other balance-of-plant equipment to generate power. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), an additional 12 GW of hydropower could be generated from existing dams that do not have hydropower capability.

Encouraging Signs From Washington

Hydropower is on the agenda in Washington, D.C., as policymakers discuss pathways to achieve a clean energy future.

Significant new funding is allocated to a range of hydro initiatives within the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act. More than $500 million is dedicated to dam safety upgrades, environmental enhancement, wildlife conservation, and funding removal of dams and impoundments that have reached the end of their useful lives.

In addition, a range of tax incentives are aimed at jump-starting construction of new hydropower capacity at existing nonpowered dams and conduits. Private developers also are now eligible for a new 30% tax credit for pumped storage, and an existing investment tax credit for incremental new hydropower projects will be extended by an additional 10 years.

Why Is It Needed?  

Current DOE forecasts indicate that maintaining the existing hydropower fleet and adding capacity to qualifying nonpowered dams has potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 5.1 billion metric tons by 2050, from a 2017 baseline.

U.S. dams now average about 60 years old, and public safety concerns are driving momentum to rehabilitate many older dams. Though it is urgent to maintain the existing hydro fleet in good working order, it is unlikely we will see new hydropower plants built unless Congress clears the way with incentives comparable to other clean non-carbon-emitting technologies. The primary barrier to developing and building new dams is schedule, not necessarily cost. Hydropower development is a complex process that is controlled by three federal agencies — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — not to mention various state environmental agencies and local permitting authorities.

Navigating the complex web of permitting and approvals can exceed a decade, and there is also a high likelihood that these projects could face litigation, potentially adding another 5-6 years. That long time lag, along with a multiyear construction schedule, challenges project development decisions.

The Most Reasonable Way Forward

Retrofitting existing dams with modern hydropower and balance-of-plant systems is a commonsense solution that will help solve the complex problem of moving our grid further away from fossil fuels.

A Burns & McDonnell project to upgrade controls at the massive New York Power Authority hydro facilities along the Niagara River is a perfect example of how prudent capital investment in a longstanding power resource can pay dividends for decades to come. The controls upgrade involves installing all-new digital components, allowing remote control of a range of facilities, while implementing robust new cybersecurity protection measures.

For more than 100 years, hydropower has served as a steady and highly economical source of baseload power. From massive federal power agencies like the Bonneville Power Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority to municipal and investor-owned utilities, hydropower has been a benchmark in affordable electric rates for many decades.

Now, as new grid requirements emerge associated with integrating large intermittent wind and solar, there is a growing need for ancillary power services. Hydropower could be the perfect solution. These ancillary services like fast start ramp rates, load rejection ramp rates, frequency control and black start continue to grow. All of these demands can be exceptionally well-managed by hydropower facilities.

It may not be a solution for all parts of the country, but in water-rich geographic regions hydropower deserves as much emphasis as any of the newer renewable resources now dominating the headlines.


The New York Power Authority is making a billion-dollar investment in extending the life of the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, the second most productive hydropower facility in the U.S.

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Grant Grothen is a principal and business development manager at Burns & McDonnell. Over a 30-year career, Grant has consulted with utilities throughout North America, Europe and Asia on nuclear, renewable and fossil generation resource issues, including air quality control and water and wastewater systems.