Miller: Hydropower is a zero-carbon energy source at our doorstep
A pioneering resource is now available that can provide clean, renewable energy at a fraction of the cost of existing, carbon-free methods. It uses existing natural resources to produce energy, but unlike wind and solar, its infrastructure is already in place, making our electric bills more affordable.
This incredible resource also has the capacity to store and release energy when needed to make up for the intermittent nature of wind and solar or other renewables which typically need battery backup.
Imagine the reaction to a new energy concept like this in 2021, when we're in a race against time to eliminate our carbon footprint and reverse the disastrous impacts of global warming.
You might also wonder what carbon-free technology could possibly challenge the highly lauded merits of wind and solar. We're talking about hydropower; an electricity source that has already been in use in the U.S. and around the world since the late nineteenth century. Yet most people don't understand its significance or the important role it plays.
If you grew up in the Pacific Northwest, you probably already know that hydropower is a staple in the renewable energy field bringing an abundance of affordable energy benefits that are helping us reach our clean energy goals in the most cost-effective and equitable way. In this region, the energy produced by hydropower provides close to 90% of our renewable energy — enough to meet Seattle's yearly electricity needs over 16 times.
One of the biggest differentiators and advantages of hydropower is that it generates electricity when it is needed because of its ability to store surplus power by holding water behind a dam for later use. In essence, unlike its carbon-free partners--wind and solar — hydropower comes with its own backup power.
Hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested in battery development to safely and cleanly integrate intermittent renewables like wind and solar into the grid. However, the most advanced utility-scale batteries are still trying to break the six-hour barrier. Meanwhile, hydropower facilities with moderate reservoir size can provide power for days at a time.
The role of hydropower in a carbon-free world cannot be overestimated. It is our largest renewable energy source. Seventy-five percent of the world's renewable electricity generation comes from hydropower and it is poised to become even more influential in the coming years, thanks in part to new innovations.
One such innovation is green hydrogen, an alternative fuel whose only byproduct is water. That makes it a great fit for sectors like commercial transportation, manufacturing, and even homes. But what makes green hydrogen truly clean is the way it is developed. Hydrogen can be isolated through a process known as electrolysis, which uses electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water. When a renewable energy resource, such as hydropower provides the electricity, then it's full lifecycle is green.
When green hydrogen is provided by hydropower or other zero-carbon resources, it could help bring the world to net-zero emissions in the coming decades. As a result, we're seeing the growth of important test beds.
For example, Douglas Public Utility District in the state of Washington launched a pilot in 2020 to turn excess hydropower into hydrogen and is in the process of constructing the first renewable hydrogen production facility in the Northwest.
There are still many other ways we can create greater efficiencies by leveraging this stalwart of the clean energy sector. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is exploring ways to pair hydropower and batteries to create energy super storage facilities that can leverage existing hydropower capabilities.
Thinking outside the box, we could also use a portion of the federal infrastructure package to add hydroelectric generators to some of the 97% of U.S. dams that don't produce electricity. Or replace existing hydropower turbines with advanced turbines that produce more zero-carbon electricity and safely pass over 99% of the juvenile salmon they encounter.
Alongside wind and solar energy, hydropower continues to be a crucial and proven player in the clean energy field. But in order to most equitably realize our 100% carbon-free goals here in the Northwest, we need to fully appreciate the role that hydropower plays and understand that this groundbreaking resource is a major force leading the way.
Kurt Miller is executive director of the not-for-profit Northwest RiverPartners, which advocates for hydropower in the Pacific Northwest.
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