The US still has a significant amount of hydropower potential; the question is how to develop it. The US Department of Energy (DOE) finds that hydropower could grow from its present capacity of 101 gigawatts (GW) to nearly 150 GW by 2050, with the right investment. The scenario explored, was a combination of 13 GW of new generation capacity, and 36 GW of new pumped storage capacity. The new capacity would result from upgrades to existing plants, adding power at existing dams and canals, and a limited number of new facilities on undeveloped stream-reaches.
In the DOE’s assessment, entitled “Hydropower Vision,” this level of investment would achieve several benefits, including a $24 billion savings from avoided greenhouse gas emissions, attributable directly to new development. Pumped storage schemes can also provide a backstop to more variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
In order to realize much of the potential, the industry will need to rely on private investment for a significant portion of the development. Today, federal agencies own about 49% of all installed capacity; these agencies include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. An additional 24% of the existing capacity is publicly owned through utilities, irrigation districts, and cooperatives. The remaining 27% of installed capacity is privately owned.
Richard Swanson, Ph.D.
Asset valuation and project finance expert, specializing in financial and economic analysis of civil infrastructure assets.