Electrifying existing dams

 

In “Is Renewable Energy’s Future Dammed?” (11/25/19) Nick Bowlin asks an important question, but fails to mention some critical facts that we need to weigh when thinking about future hydropower projects. According to the National Inventory of Dams, maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, there are 91,468 dams in the United States — the equivalent of having built more than one per day since Thomas Jefferson was president. Only 3% of these dams produce electricity. Sure, some of the remaining 97% that do not — 88,724 dams — might not support a hydropower retrofit, and others deserve to be considered for removal due to environmental and cultural impacts, risks to downstream communities, or simply because they’ve exceeded their useful lifespan. But with so many to choose from, it’s likely that many would fit the bill. Let’s take a hard look at electrifying existing dams before we even consider building new hydropower projects on free-flowing segments of river. The fact that hydropower dams are incredibly damaging to the ecosystems that we depend on is well-documented, and they also happen to be very expensive to build. It’s up to us to make sure that in the headlong rush to de-carbonize energy sources of the future, we also protect what we have in the present. Better yet, let’s come up with an energy vision that also restores many of our damaged and degraded ecosystems, starting with our rivers. Building more dams on free-flowing rivers is not the answer, but distributed residential solar with battery storage just might be.

—Mike Fiebig

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