Funding Hydropower Projects will Not Fight Climate Change - Waterkeeper

Funding Hydropower Projects will Not Fight Climate Change

By: Kate Hudson

Hungry Horse Hydropower Dam
MTAerial of Hungry Horse Dam. 06/01/2003 BOR Photo by Dave Walsh|

There is a new significant threat to our free flowing rivers and our climate: the promotion of hydropower under the guise that it is clean, renewable energy that will help fight climate change.

But hydropower is not clean or renewable, and is not a solution, but is instead contributing to the climate crisis. 

Contact your Congressional representatives and tell them that hydropower is not clean, renewable energy, and that they should oppose any legislation that would classify new hydropower projects as renewable energy that will fight climate change.  

Legislation has recently been introduced in Congress with the express purpose of defining and promoting hydropower and the construction of new hydropower projects as “renewable energy.” If bills like these are successful in classifying hydropower as clean, renewable energy, they could make destructive hydropower projects eligible for climate change funding. 

The true purpose of the deceptive Hydropower Clean Energy Future Act, and others like it, is to enable the hydropower industry to profit from the climate emergency by falsely marketing hydropower as clean, green, sustainable, and renewable, when it is none of those things. If new streams of climate financing, like the Climate Bonds Initiative, or the provision in the massive $1.5 trillion House infrastructure bill which would extend and expand an incentive for hydropower development from 2021 to 2036, become available to new, large scale hydropower projects, it will be one of the greatest threats our rivers have faced in a century.

The promotion of hydropower as “green” energy flies in the face of peer-reviewed scientific evidence that hydropower is not carbon-neutral energy. For example, research confirms that dams and reservoirs are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. They are essentially greenhouse gas factories, emitting the equivalent of a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, more than the entire nation of Canada. Even more concerning, 79% of the GHG emissions from reservoirs are methane, a greenhouse gas with a very strong warming effect in the short term, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in accelerating climate change over a decade or two, a critical time period in our efforts to slow down the effects of climate change before it is too late. 

In the first decade after a new hydro facility is built, it can cause more warming than a coal-fired power plant through massive, on-going methane releases fueled by microbes feeding on flooded vegetation. It has been determined that reservoirs are emitting the equivalent of one gigaton—or one billion tons—of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That is more greenhouse gas production than the entire nation of Canada.

Hydropower dams and reservoirs are also NOT sustainable or renewable sources of energy for our rivers and the communities that depend on them. They destroy rivers and river ecosystems, with dramatic adverse impacts on fish and water quality and quantity. Damming rivers also irreversibly impacts communities that depend on them. Dams destroy thousands of acres of traditional indigenous lands and ways of life. 

Hydropower projects will drive up carbon load during the short few decades we have to slow climate change before it is too late. But we can save our planet without destroying our rivers. Given the plunging costs of solar power, wind generation, and storage technologies—as well as significant advances in energy efficiency and grid management—it is now possible to expand energy generation while drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving our free flowing rivers.

Hydropower is not part of the climate solution; it is part of the problem. Please contact your Congressional representatives and urge them to oppose any legislation that would fast-track the construction of more hydropower dam and reservoir projects by falsely claiming that those projects are clean and renewable energy that will fight climate change, while attempting to streamline the hydropower licensing process and restrict the public’s ability to weigh in before projects are approved.

Feature image: Hungry Horse Dam by Dave Walsh/Bureau of Reclamation