• Home
  • Blog
  • New National Lab Study Identifies Huge Hydropower Potential, Especially in the Pacific...

New National Lab Study Identifies Huge Hydropower Potential, Especially in the Pacific Northwest

May 16, 2014 posted by Eric Christensen

Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy ("DOE") and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory ("ORNL") released a comprehensive analysis of the potential for new hydroelectric development in the United States, finding that up to 65,500 MW of new hydro capacity could be built, nearly equal to the country's existing hydro capacity of 79,500 MW. The Pacific Northwest (defined in the report as the U.S. portion of the Columbia-Snake River Basin) contains the largest share of this capacity, nearly 26,000 MW. Major resources are also available in Alaska and Hawaii. The analysis employs advanced geographical and mapping techniques to identify stream potential, and provides an array of advanced resources to developers wishing to identify sites that offer both favorable hydrological characteristics and characteristics favorable to permitting projects. For example, the study identifies stream reaches that have been designated as critical habitat for a federally-listed endangered species. When considered together with the DOE/ORNL's 2012 report showing that up to 12,000 MW of new generation could be added to existing dams that do not presently have generation installed, the analysis demonstrates the great potential for new hydropower development, which can help supply the nation's need for carbon-free electricity using a mature and well-understood technology. While the new study demonstrates the huge potential of existing streams for development of new hydro capacity, the study also shows that much of this potential is subject to environmental constraints. For example, nearly every Pacific Northwest watershed analyzed in the study contains critical habitat for one or more endangered species, and 83% of specific stream reaches in the study are constrained by endangered species listings. Other restrictions, such as federal Wild and Scenic designations, water quality limitations, and heavy water use also impose constraints on many of the stream reaches identified in the study. This does not mean that development is impossible. For example, Snohomish County PUD's Youngs Creek Hydroelectric Project (featured on the study's cover photograph) avoided many of these constraints through careful site selection which considered a range of potential environmental constraints. The geospatial and hydrological information provided by ORNL/DOE will help project developers identify similar sites that face relatively low barriers to permitting. If you have any questions about hydroelectric power development, energy law in the Pacific Northwest, environmental permitting, the Endangered Species Act, or other matters involving the energy or natural resources industries, please contact a member of GTH's Energy, Telecommunications, and Utilities or Environment & Natural Resources practice groups. We're proud that our partner Jim Waldo was recently named 2013 Lawyer of the Year for Energy and Natural Resources Law, and practice group members Don Cohen, Bill Lynn, and Brad Jones were all named among Seattle's Best Lawyers.