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Renewable or not? How states count hydropower

North Dakota's Garrison Dam has a nameplate capacity of 583 MW. (Photo via Army Corps of Engineers)

When is hydropower a renewable energy source?

The answer, at least from a policy perspective, depends on the state.

How hydropower is counted toward renewable electricity standards varies from state to state perhaps more than any other type of generation.

More than 30 states have passed renewable electricity standards, which require utilities to generate a percentage of their power from renewable sources.

Every state counts some hydropower, but the fine print is far from uniform.

In the Midwest, for example:

•Iowa and Minnesota allow utilities to count electricity from small hydropower facilities only. Iowa doesn’t define small, while Minnesota sets the upper limit at 100 megawatts.

•Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri don’t count hydroelectricity from facilities that require the construction of new dams or significant expansion of existing ones.

•Ohio will let utilities count hydroelectricity only from facilities that are not detrimental for fish, wildlife, water quality or “cultural resources.”

•North Dakota counts all hydropower in its renewable electricity standard.

•In July 2011, Wisconsin added new hydropower restrictions to its renewable standard. Utilities can only start counting hydroelectricity from large facilities after 2015.

One reason renewable policies place qualifications on hydroelectric facilities is that most of them were already built when states started discussing the policies. Counting all available hydro would significantly water down the impact in some places.

“The whole point of a [renewable standard] is to increase the amount of renewable energy in a state,” says Kyle Aarons, a solutions fellow with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “Since hydropower has been around for over 100 years in some areas, if they counted all hydro their targets would have to be unrealistically high or they wouldn’t actually be encouraging any new renewables from coming online.”

Utilities didn’t need new incentives to build hydropower facilities, Aarons said. They had already been investing in hydropower for reasons other than its renewable qualities.

That was the situation in Minnesota as lawmakers were working on the state’s renewable policy in 2007. Canada’s Manitoba Hydro is a major power supplier to the state’s utilities, and it was preparing for a major expansion at the time.

“We wanted to see Minnesota develop its own resources rather than have a standard that would allow Minnesota utilities to meet it simply by buying hydropower from a major development,” says State Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, one of the bill’s main authors.

The environmental impact of the Manitoba Hydro project was also of concern, says Hilty. It’s an issue that’s come up elsewhere, too, as states drafted their renewable policies, says Rupak Thapaliya, national coordinator for the Hydropower Reform Coalition.

“Hydroelectric is not always clean,” says Thapaliya. “Some states tend to be very protective of the ecosystems and they are hesitant to qualify hydro because first of all it’s not as clean as say, solar.”

A project’s size, however, is a poor measure of its environmental impact, says Thapaliya. That’s why the Hydropower Reform Coalition advocates for an approach more along the lines of Ohio, which specifically addresses environmental impact, rather than Iowa or Minnesota, which simply cap the size of facilities that are counted.

Organizations such as the Low Impact Hydropower Institute and American Rivers issue certification to hydroelectric facilities that meet environmental guidelines. Pennsylvania requires hydro to have that certification in order to be counted in renewable portfolios.

The National Hydropower Association doesn’t believe that’s necessary.

“Any hydro project that gets built today or that gets relicensed has to meet all of the federal and state environmental laws that are on the books,” says Jeff Leahey, the associations’ government affairs director.

When Congress was discussing a national renewable standard, the hydropower association supported a measure that wouldn’t have counted hydro as renewable but also wouldn’t have counted it in utilities’ non-renewable portfolios either.

A utility that hypothetically drew 50 percent of its power from hydro and was required to generate 25 percent from renewables would base the calculation only on the other half of its portfolio that didn’t come from hydro, lessening the burden.

A more aggressive clean energy policy, such as the 80 percent by 2035 target that President Obama has proposed, would need hydro to succeed, says Leahey:

“We don’t think you can get to the amount of clean energy generation that policy makers are calling for unless you include hydro.”

How Hydro Counts Towards States’ Renewable Goals

Click on the markers to see how states count hydropower in their renewable electricity standards.

View State Renewable Portfolio Standards & Hydropower in a larger map
Source: Hydropower Reform Coalition

An earlier version of this story omitted North Dakota among states that count all forms of hydropower in their renewable standards.

Comments (3)

“it’s not as clean as say, solar”

Obviously written by someone who has never investigated the manufacturing process for solar cells. From the energy intensive crushing of the quartz rock to melting that crushed product by burning coke (coal) and etching the substrate with toxic silane gas, solar isn’t nearly as benign as advocates would like you to believe.

By Jay on Jan 13, 2012

Since not counting hydro primarily forces wind, why no comparisons? You mention solar, which will never replace the ammount of hydro electricity we already use. Wind is even worse since it produces primarliy when there is no demand for electricity and, therefore, tends to destabilize the grid and requires over-capacity tranismission lines which have their own negative impact. Wind is the worst choice of all, but 80% of the federal PTC cash went to wind. As you clearly show here, we don’t count the hydro electricity, because then the lobbyists could not force their agenda – wind.

By rural 55956 on Jan 15, 2012

Jay, admittedly PV solar is not the cleanest to manufacture, but it would be interesting to compare to the energy & resources & pollution it takes to construct new hydro. Solar, unlike hydro, once installed will only help offset any greenhouse gases (GHGs) & other pollutants. Backing up water behind dams has the potential to create wetlands which release stored methane adding to GHGs (methane being one of the most potent GHG).

Although wind is curtailed routinely due to transmission limitations it has yet to reach a penetration level to destabilize any section of the grid. Yes, new transmission is required to get a lot of it to load, but that’s the same for any new resource. Variability doesn’t render it useless in serving load or make its contribution to pollution reduction any less significant… Sure the PTC could have been implemented better, but the major critique is that it should be longer term instead of leaving an entire industry guessing year after year. Coal, gas & nucs all started (and still get) incentives to be as economic as they are, so no point in hating on wind.

By PwrSavy on Jan 18, 2012