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By the Rivers of .  .  . Quebec?

The cheap, green answer to our electricity needs.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By ELI LEHRER
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Despite all of hydro’s advantages, there’s no plan to build new river dams in the United States. The reason is simple: There’s no good place to do it. Even the U.S. National Hydropower Association admits as much. While it talks of doubling U.S. hydropower with a variety of efforts (many of them requiring subsidies and tax credits), all but a minuscule fraction of the proposed increase would come from adding generators and capacity to existing dams to explore thus-far-unproven sources like tidal power and pumping excess capacity into storage areas. This additional power, although clean and thus satisfying to some environmental groups, remains undeveloped absent subsidies because, in many cases, it would be just as expensive as trendy renewables like wind and solar power. 

U.S environmental groups aren’t enthusiastic about building more dams, but even those that typically oppose dams say that more hydropower could make sense, particularly if it displaces dirtier forms of fuel. “If there aren’t renewable projects built, we’re never going to get out from fossil energy in the United States,” says John Seebach of the group American Rivers, which has often led opposition to dam projects. “The only power source that hurts rivers more than hydro is coal.” 

For all the great possibilities, however, bringing in more hydropower from Canada isn’t a sure thing. Even Jake Irving admits “these aren’t all going to happen” when looking at his own association’s predictions of new capacity. Furthermore, building lots of dams in Canada does nothing to satisfy the Obama administration’s sure-to-continue quest for “green jobs.” In fact, precisely because it’s so cheap to produce, increased hydropower capacity could well displace American jobs in high-cost wind and solar power. 

Indeed, the broad benefits of cheap power and a cleaner environment overall might even paradoxically be seen as a barrier to hydropower development. The most important real gains from developing hydropower will be distributed so widely that they’ll tend to boost living -standards for almost everyone rather than offering any particular group in the United States a huge payday. (Canadian construction interests will reap that reward.) Although untapped hydro capacity is enormous, it’s not enough to replace more than a fraction of coal plants that environmentalists and their allies in the Obama administration want to see eliminated. And, for those who want “energy independence” for the United States, building dams in another country obviously doesn’t achieve it.

Financing a big hydro expansion is also a challenge. All of the biggest Canadian hydroplant owners are “crown corporations”—government-supported enterprises—that the various provincial governments own and control. While all are generally profitable, they exist partly for public purposes and thus might well be stopped from making potentially risky investments largely for the benefit of people who aren’t citizens of their provinces, or even their country. Thus, the companies with the experience, knowledge, and political juice to get a massive number of projects built don’t necessarily have a motive to begin doing so. 

Nonetheless, building hydroelectric power plants in Canada—lots of them—offers a rare win-win situation for America’s energy future. Indeed, it’s by far the most economically viable form of green energy and a rare opportunity to meet the energy goals of both left and right.

Eli Lehrer is president of R Street.


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