An Uncommon Dialogue: All We are Saying, is Give Peace a Chance

Posted on October 22, 2020 by Richard Glick

Those of a certain age will remember this plaintive, kumbaya-seeking line from John Lennon’s Vietnam War protest song.  Naïve, perhaps, but an Uncommon Dialogue process initiated thorough Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, expresses a similar hope for peaceful solutions among the warring parties in hydroelectric regulatory processes.  A two and a half year effort has resulted in execution of a Joint Statement of Collaboration on U.S. Hydropower: Climate Solution and Conservation Challenge.  Signatories include an extraordinary collection of national environmental and industry groups.

The impetus for the Joint Statement is the urgent need to address climate change by promoting non-greenhouse gas emitting, renewable energy resources.  Hydroelectric power meets these criteria, and has the added benefit of storing energy capacity that is readily dispatchable, as with a battery, making it an ideal companion to other renewable resources when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.  The central problem, of course, is that dam building across America has often resulted in decimation of native and anadromous fish runs.  Mitigating or reversing damage to rivers is a formidable challenge, impossible in some cases, but feasible in others.

The Joint Statement notes that there are about 90,000 dams in the U.S., but only 2,500 produce electricity.  About 30% of existing FERC-licensed hydropower facilities will be up for relicensing over the next decade.  These facts led the participants to focus on three main policy directions in the Joint Statement:

  • Rehabilitating both powered and non-powered dams to improve safety, increase climate resilience, and mitigate environmental impacts;  
  • Retrofitting powered dams and adding generation at non-powered dams to increase renewable generation; developing pumped storage capacity at existing dams; and enhancing dam and reservoir operations for water supply, fish passage, flood mitigation, and grid integration of solar and wind; and
  • Removing dams that no longer provide benefits to society, have safety issues that cannot be cost-effectively mitigated, or have adverse environmental impacts that cannot be effectively addressed.

A 60-day period now begins, during which signatories to the Joint Statement will reach out for comments from a broader range of stakeholders, including state and tribal governments.

Many of us practicing environmental, natural resources and energy law chose those fields because we cared about the environment and believed that economic growth and conservation values could, and indeed must, coexist.  While only 7% of the nation’s electricity output now comes from hydropower, this old technology could play a much bigger role if we maximize the benefits and minimize the harms through collaboration based on trust, rather than endless litigation.  The climate change crisis demands that we try, and this Joint Statement is a big step in the right direction.