An Ode to Hydropower

This past week, many of our public power members in the path of Hurricane Laura have been focused on restoring their systems or helping cooperative and investor-owned utilities to do so, and that important work continues. Even in the midst of ongoing storm and pandemic response, however, I think it is important to take a step back and remember that last Monday was National Hydropower Day. While I sometimes lose track of the designated national days or weeks (for example, did you know that November 2 is National Stress Awareness Day?), I don’t ever want to lose track of this one.

On a personal note, I have loved hydro for many years. I mean, truly, I love it. After having worked at APPA for just a couple of years, I was in the middle of the August 2003 Northeast/Midwest Blackout – not literally in the blackout, but fielding calls from reporters and policy makers during a typically quiet time in Washington, D.C. when many people, including my colleagues at the time, took their vacations. I soon learned the true beauty of that lovely and simple power source – it could reenergize power grids and other generation sources quickly. With a little help from small diesel generators at the dam, the Niagara Hydropower Project in New York was able to initiate a restart of the grid that led to the entire region’s restoration of power.

This capability – known as “black start” – is essential during a widespread power outage because other forms of generation (nuclear, coal, and some natural gas) can need hours, even days, to cycle back on after they trip, even with help from small diesel generators. This is not a ding on those sources, but rather a recognition of their characteristics. Intermittent wind and solar generation also cannot be relied on to be available when black start is needed on a widespread basis unless coupled with robust storage technology. Hydropower, however, functions like a huge battery. The simplicity of falling water spinning turbines that in turn create the electromagnetic force to generate electricity means that the reservoirs behind dams can be immediately used to restart the electrical system. While other types of battery storage systems have come a long way since 2003, the only other fuel source currently capable of enabling widespread black start other than hydro is diesel. Like your own home generators, grid-level diesel is easily started and movable to where it is needed. Unlike hydro, however, it requires a fuel source that must be created and transported with the generator (or available where the generator is). While hydropower dams or run of the river turbines cannot be moved, their fuel source – water – is highly reliable and renewable.

Highly impressed with the Niagara Project’s contribution to restoring power after the 2003 Blackout, I took that positive bias to one of my first public power trips to the Northwest. There, hosted by the public utility districts serving much of Washington State, I got an up-close look at a modern hydropower dam. I got to see firsthand the simplicity of the design as well as the additional structures added in recent years to ensure fish can traverse the dam unharmed. I had an “a-ha” moment about the physics of electricity as I observed the public display of how the falling water translated eventually into the large transmission lines emanating from the facility. I better understood the multipurpose nature of the dams that the power component helps finance – flood control, agriculture, and recreation, among others. My love was solidified then and there to a lifetime passion.

Since that time, hydropower technology has improved. Advanced turbines are more efficient. Run-of-the-river turbines have been put in the flow of rivers that do not have enough “head” (vertical height) to justify a dam. In fact, one such state-of-the-art project was completed by American Municipal Power on the Ohio River in 2016. But dams are still important where possible because that reservoir enables black start and supports the other purposes mentioned above. Which is why I am so happy that a public power joint action agency, Missouri River Energy Services (MRES), has completed construction and is poised to begin operations of the Red Rock Hydroelectric Project in Iowa. The video dedication of the hydro plant is on September 2, and operations will begin later this year. MRES made the case to local, state and federal policy makers that adding the hydro plant to the existing dam would provide the region with a clean, renewable, reliable resource in a modern way. This achievement is a testament to public power’s long support of hydro. It also heartens me that public power is trusted to manage this new hydroelectric plant to the benefit of the region.

As we look to the future, Red Rock and other new hydropower facilities should play a more significant role in clean energy deployment as should maintenance of our existing fleet of hydropower facilities. I know I’m in good company with the public power network in loving the benefits hydro brings, and I hope you’ll join me in sharing this love with our communities to expand its admirers even further.