ico-electricity [ GWh of Electricity Added: ] 38.1K
ico-job [ Jobs Impact: ]
  • LOW
  • HIGH
ico-cost [ Budget Impact: ]
  • LOW
  • HIGH
ico-pollution [ Conventional Pollutants Reduced: ]

SO2 5011
NOx 4137
Hg .067
PM 768

ico-reduced [ Megatons of GHG Reduced: ] 36.7


Mention hydropower and most people immediately think of enormous, New Deal-era projects like the Grand Cooley or Hoover Dams. These installations are iconic, but they are not the entire story. Hydropower currently generates 6.8%1 of the electricity used by the United States, but we are not yet using the full potential of our domestic hydro resources. By modernizing some existing large hydropower producers and equipping some other dams with electricity generation turbines, we could add more than 8 GW of new clean electric capacity to the grid.


Conventional hydropower is generated by dams and pump storage, and while the bulk of it is located in the Pacific Northwest and West, much of the nation benefits from hydropower.2 Existing installations collectively provide 101 GW3 of generation capacity. But there is much more power available without erecting any new dams.4 While we obviously cannot install turbines on all 50,000 of our nation’s unpowered dams,5 the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) has identified 100 large dams that could generate significant amounts of hydropower.6 The U.S. could add a total of 8.225 GW of hydro-electric capacity by adding electricity generation capacity to those 100 dams and increasing the efficiency of turbines at existing facilities.7 That would be enough to power at least 6.2 million homes,10 more than in the states of Missouri, Louisiana, and Iowa combined.11

Assuming this new hydropower replaced coal, it would displace 31 million metric tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions.12 And hydropower produces no conventional pollutants, so it would remove as much nitrogen and sulfur oxides, mercury, and particulate matter as produced by about 13 average-size coal plants.13 These new hydro projects would also create as many as 48,000 additional jobs.14 Most of these new positions would be in the Southeast and the Midwest.15 Based on analysis of data compiled by the Idaho National Laboratory, the Midwest and South currently rely on only about 1 GW of hydropower capacity.16 This would be a substantial broadening of electricity resources for these regions.

The cost of hydro is competitive with other energy sources aside from natural gas at its current price. Levelized costs of hydro projects are expected to remain generally low, at $88.9 per MWh for the foreseeable future, compared to $110.9 per MWh for advanced coal (without CCS), $111.4 per MWh for advanced nuclear, and $66.1 per MWh for advanced combined cycle natural gas.17 Once built, hydropower needs no feed stock fuel unlike coal, natural gas, or nuclear, making it the cheapest source of baseload power to produce.18


Congress and the Administration should develop strategies to ensure facilities are modernized and use more efficient technologies, and certain unpowered dams should be electrified to provide power to underserved regions in the Midwest and South.

Modernize Sites Identified by the Bureau of Reclamation

According to the USBR, there are 70 existing hydro-electric sites that could be modernized at low cost and produce over 1 million MWh of electricity per year from just over 225 MW of installed capacity.19 Undertaking all of these named projects would only require around $591 million in total funding.20 Fourteen states would benefit from these 70 projects, including New Mexico, Nebraska, Colorado, and Arizona. USBR could achieve these gains simply by reprogramming funds already appropriated to the agency, or Congress could make additional appropriations available for these projects.

Electrify Unpowered Dams

The 50,000 unpowered dams waste all of the kinetic energy of the water they manage. While more than 12 GW of electricity could be captured if all of the dams were rigged to produce electricity, most of these would produce little power. However, just 100 of those dams along the Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas rivers could produce around 8 GW of power for the South and Midwest. While there would be significant cost to electrify these 100 dams, there is significant private interest in financing these facilities,21 and they would create around 48,000 jobs.22 Moreover, the most difficult and costly work—building the dam—is already done. As Oak Ridge National Laboratory has noted, “many of the monetary costs and environmental impacts of dam construction have already been incurred at non-powered dams.”23

The federal Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) owns 81 of these 100 dams; utilities and other entities own the rest.24 Congress should consider reforms to facilitate the development of non-federal hydroelectric power at USACE civil works projects. These regulatory reforms would be low cost to taxpayers but would result in the removal of significant red tape that is holding back private development of new generation capacity at non-powered dams. Currently language drafted by the Hydropower Policy Review Working Group25 is circulating amongst policymakers in Washington and has the support of environmental and industry groups alike.

Reform the Hydroelectric Licensing Process

The licensing of hydroelectric projects has generally become lengthy, costly, redundant, and inefficient, leading to costly delays in the electrification or modernization of hydroelectric systems. Congress should pass licensing reform that would make the process more timely and result in greater government accountability while preserving environmental reviews that protect public and environmental health. This should include improved coordination between Federal and State environmental laws, improved Federal and State agency coordination and transparency in the licensing process, and clearer definition of the authorities of Federal agencies to maximize participation during the hydropower licensing process.

Expedite Pumped Hydro Storage Licensing

FERC should create a separate, expedited licensing track for closed-loop pumped hydro storage projects (those not connected to an existing waterway). The Commission currently is soliciting pilot projects to test such an approach.26 In the past three years, FERC has issued preliminary permits for nearly 50 GW of pumped hydro storage, possibly signaling a pumped hydro renaissance that could triple total U.S. capacity.27 However, preliminary permits mostly secure applicants a place in line for the licensing process, which can take five years. This timeline serves as a deterrent for energy developers, who might forgo pumped hydro storage in favor of different energy asset projects that don’t need FERC approval.28 But because two-thirds of these new pumped hydro projects are closed-loop,29 they carry fewer environmental impacts than ordinary projects. Hence, their licensing process could—and should—be much shorter.