Big Hype, Small Dams

Big Hype, Small Dams

pc_toothrock_tunnel_bonneville_dam_1940sIn the July 27 issue of High Country News, I have a news story looking at the push for small dams in the Pacific Northwest — and the rest of the country. Utilities claim that small-scale hydropower is green energy, like wind or solar, but environmentalists say dams are as awful as, well, dams.

From the article:

Boosters tout small-scale hydroelectric projects — defined as generating less than 30 megawatts, or enough to power up to 30,000 homes — as carbon-neutral and more fish-friendly. And the resource has staggering potential: Just a fraction of the possible sites on [the state of] Washington’s waterways could power millions of homes.

But although utilities, investors and speculators are getting into the game, small-hydro development won’t be easy or cheap without policy incentives and tax credits. And not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. “We look at our watersheds and waterways in the Northwest as pretty stressed already. The impacts are apparent everywhere,” says Rich Bowers, Northwest coordinator for the Hydropower Reform Coalition, a network of 140-plus environmental and outdoor recreation groups.

It’s no surprise that the two interests have different takes on the potential and consequences of small hydro, but the battle is still playing out as Congress bats around which energy sectors will score incentives as “renewable” energy. Federal and state policy moves and tax breaks will play a major role in how these projects move forward.

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