How can Build Back Better not include a staple like hydropower?
According to the most recently available data from the state of Oregon, hydropower represents 37% of our electricity resource mix, coal 27%, natural gas 25%, wind 5%, and solar around 1%. The Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Western Montana, is the largest hydropower producing region in the nation, representing about 40% of U.S. hydropower output.
It's no coincidence the Northwest can boast the most affordable clean energy, the lowest energy burden, and the least carbon-intensive grid in the United States. A primary reason states like Oregon and Washington have been able to pass 100% clean energy standards in recent years is the head start our hydropower resources have provided.
Hydropower really matters here. However, perhaps because we're tucked away in a corner of the United States, far away from Washington, D.C., hydropower has been left out of many tax incentives for renewable energy.
Wind and solar power have been beneficiaries, and even nuclear power has money earmarked in the Biden administration's Build Back Better bill, also known as the reconciliation bill, being worked on in Congress. Hydropower has not been added into the bill yet, and this matters to the 32 Oregon hydropower projects that stand to benefit from this infrastructure when they get relicensed in the coming decade.
While these carbon-free resources are going to be important in our region's decarbonization efforts, none will be as important as hydropower. Other than pumped storage facilities, there aren't plans to build new hydropower dams in the region, but maintaining our existing fleet of productive hydropower resources is critical. For every megawatt of hydropower we lose, it puts us further behind in our effort to decarbonize the grid, which still has a long way to go. Our existing hydropower fleet is also crucial to provide 24/7 energy, which wind and solar cannot do by themselves.
Which brings us to a very important opportunity. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state co-authored the Twenty-First Century Dams Act. This proposed act is the result of a collaborative effort by American Rivers, the National Hydropower Association, and others which came together as part of the Uncommon Dialogue.
While these advocacy groups have often been at odds, they reached this landmark agreement in 2020 for cooperation to help upgrade and renovate productive hydropower dams, while removing obsolete dams to improve the health of rivers.
The 21st Century Dams Act is not moving forward as a stand-alone act, but key concepts from it have been included in other infrastructure legislation. Under Build Back Better, there is an important opportunity for dam operators to receive a 30% tax incentive (or direct payment for public power utilities) for these critical hydropower improvement efforts.
Given the context of climate change, this provision is important to the entire US, but given the prevalence of hydropower in our region, there is probably nowhere it is more vital than in the Pacific Northwest.
Right now, this extraordinary opportunity rests with Sen. Wyden, who supports the bill. In a press statement, the senator stated, "In order to support the production of hydropower in Oregon and across the U.S., there must be a concerted effort to modernize dams across every nook and cranny of the country. The Twenty-First Century Dams Act is a bipartisan push to do just that, investing over $25 billion to enhance dam safety, improve hydroelectric generation and reconnect thousands of miles of streams through voluntary removal of aging dams."
We encourage you to write to Sen. Wyden and ask him to see this vision through. We have a unique opportunity to make a huge difference for the Pacific Northwest and the USA in support of hydropower.
Brenna Vaughn is executive director of the Northwest Hydroelectric Association, a trade association that represents independent energy producers. Kurt Miller is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower for a better Northwest.
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