“I am for hydropower because I’m an environmentalist.”

So began the remarks of U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at a recent Washington meeting about hydropower that I attended. His eyes twinkled mischievously — surely knowing that, to many environmentalists, his statement would ring as true as simultaneous support for bacon and arterial health.

Here’s the tension in his statement: Despite the fact that hydropower is the largest current source of renewable, low-carbon electricity, its development has exacted a heavy toll on rivers and fish populations and precipitated several of the most bitter battles in the history of the environmental movement.

And while large-scale sources of renewable energy are desperately needed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, rivers in the United States — and worldwide — have been more fragmented and degraded and lost more species than any other major habitat type.

The Washington meeting saw Secretary Chu, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy sign an agreement for their agencies to collaborate on increasing hydropower in the United States, with an emphasis on expanding energy production from existing dams.

Secretary Chu followed his opening salvo with an acknowledgment that environmental protection and hydropower are usually pitted as mutually exclusive objectives.

“But this is a false choice,” he added, going on to highlight a number of technological advances that DOE has supported, such as the development of “fish-friendly turbines.”

When given a chance to speak at this meeting, I picked up on Secretary Chu’s concept of “false choices” and described the Conservancy’s strategy for moving beyond traditional conflicts between hydropower and environmental protection: Expand the search for solutions to large geographic scales.

What do I mean by this? Perhaps it’s easiest to illustrate by starting with a negative example:

  • The development and operation of energy projects generally addresses environmental protection at the scale of a single project, such as an individual hydropower dam.
  • At this scale, balancing between environmental and energy benefits can quickly hit a zero-sum wall: gains for the environment come at the expense of energy, and vice versa.
  • But at larger spatial scales, such as an entire river basin, a much broader set of solutions becomes available and the possibilities for win-win solutions increase.

Want an example? On the Penobscot River basin in Maine, a range of interests — including the Penobscot Indian Nation, state and federal agencies, and conservation organizations — have worked with a hydropower company in recent years to identify possible solutions for both energy and ecosystem restoration at the scale of the entire river basin.

The resulting plan features the removal of two dams on the main river and the addition of state-of-the-art fish passage facilities on a third dam. As a result, biologists predict that migratory fish — currently blocked by dams and restricted to the lowermost part of the river — will have access to most of the river basin.

Due to the vast increase in habitat, the biologists estimate that the Penobscot’s populations of American shad will increase from near zero currently to two million and Atlantic salmon will increase from 2,000 to 12,000. (See a feature article on the Penobscot in The Nature Conservancy magazine’s summer 2010 issue, along with photos, a video and aerial tour).

And even though two dams will be removed, turbine additions and other changes at the remaining dams will result in a slight net increase in energy generation from the Penobscot basin. By moving beyond project-by-project debates, the various partners developed an alternative that will provide basin-scale benefits for both energy and the environment.

So can the United States expand hydropower while protecting — or even restoring — its rivers? Two elements of the agreement between the agencies suggest yes:

  • Second, the agreement calls for “basin-scale opportunity assessments” — in the simplest terms, searching for more outcomes like the Penobscot that make the most of our existing infrastructure and achieve innovative solutions at large geographic scales.

These concepts can go a long way toward greatly improving the environmental sustainability of hydropower.

The Conservancy has much to offer this effort, drawing on its tradition of large-scale conservation planning and collaborating with water-mangament agencies, such as the Corps of Engineers, to restore river ecosystems. We look forward to working alongside these agencies to improve the sustainability of hydropower in the United States.

Just like individual pieces of bacon (delicious, yet high in artery-clogging cholesterol), individual dams will always be a mix of benefits (low-carbon electricity) and impacts (lost fisheries).

But if managed smartly, even bacon — in moderation, carefully selected and strategically deployed as part of a broader mix — can be part of a heart-healthy diet.

(OK, the metaphor is strained by the fact that some individual dams are like a 75-pound piece of bacon. But you get the picture.)

(Image: Wilted spinach salad. Image credit: HarlanH/Flickr trough a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. It is good to see there is some potential for energy and conservation. That is why I favor run of river energy projects as well.

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