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U.S. fails to harness hydro power potential

One of the more interesting types of green energy is hydroelectric power. Among green energy sources, hydroelectric power is second only to nuclear power in terms of generation capacity. In many respects hydroelectric plants are something like a miniature version of nuclear power plants; they are costly to put up but once they are built, they last for decades providing power at close to zero marginal cost. Yet despite their effectiveness, hydroelectric power plants have not garnered the kind of focus that wind turbines and solar arrays do.

Hydroelectric plants represent an intriguing opportunity to generate more energy without increasing carbon output. In particular, there are a significant number of existing dams at rivers across the U.S. where hydroelectric power is not being used. The U.S. Department of Energy did a study suggesting that up to 12 gigawatts of additional power could be generated simply by taking advantage of these existing plants. Beyond that proverbial low hanging fruit, there is a significant amount of construction activity around building new dams and hydro plants; over 600 dams are currently under construction with several thousand more planned for the future.

Most of these new hydro power plants are being built outside the U.S. though. Like nuclear power plants, hydroelectric plants have gone out of vogue in the U.S. it would seem. The U.S. has plenty of opportunities to add to hydroelectric capacity as the DoE study demonstrates, yet little is being done on this front. In theory hydroelectric power could be a threat to the explosive trend towards greater natural gas use (and the associated phase out of coal power). Yet there is no indication that utility companies are looking to switch away from gas or any other source and towards hydroelectric in large quantities.

Fans of hydroelectric power talk about expanding its portion of the aggregate generation capacity in the U.S., but even for hydro-bulls, this is a very slow process that might see hydroelectric power double its share of generating capacity over the course of several decades. That growth trajectory pales in comparison to the level of growth in wind and solar (albeit off a much smaller base of installed capacity for the latter sources).