Hydropower 101

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Hydropower is often dubbed America’s original source of renewable electricity. The first hydroelectric plant was established as long ago as 1882 in Appleton, Wisconsin. Electricity is generated when water flows downstream, turning turbines. There are three kinds of hydroelectric dams: impoundment, diversion, and pumped storage. In order for any of these types of dams to work, kinetic water flow must occur. 

While hydropower is still our largest source of renewable energy, the growth of hydroelectricity is hindered by extensive government regulations. By streamlining burdensome regulations and permitting processes, we can continue to grow hydropower in the United States. 

Facts vs. Myths

  • MYTH: Hydropower is a mostly publicly owned utility.
    • While hydropower must adhere to strict federal regulations, 63% of hydro plants are privately owned. 
  • FACT: Hydropower is the largest source of renewable energy in the United States. 
    • Hydro provides electricity to roughly 30 million homes and accounts for 40% of renewable energy generation in the United States. 
  • MYTH: Hydropower is always damaging to the environment. 
    • New construction of large dams may be harmful to migratory patterns of fish and birds. However, retrofitting and modernizing dams has very few negative impacts on the environment.

The Benefits of Hydropower:

  • Hydroelectric energy is clean.
  • Hydropower can benefit ecosystems.
  • Hydroelectric power is affordable. 
    • Electricity rates from hydro are lower than those from nuclear, wind, or solar. 
    • States that generate a large percentage of their electricity from hydropower have lower electricity rates than the national average.

Markets vs Mandates

  • The current regulatory process is hampering hydropower growth in the United States. 
    • The share of initial regulatory costs in the total cost of projects has risen from 5% to more than 25% in the last 30 years. 
    • In order to build a hydroelectric dam, prospective developers must first receive a permit from up to a dozen different federal agencies
      • A relicensing project in California required 38 different studies to be conducted, some of which ended up costing more than $1 million.  
    • In order to retrofit or update existing dams, actions that have negligible environmental impact, a costly and time-consuming Environmental Impact Study (EIS) through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) must be completed.
      • In addition to EIS through NEPA, developers must obtain a FERC license, which often takes more than five years to process. 
      • Additionally, hydropower developers must comply with a slew of different environmental standards under the Clean Water Act, the Federal Water Power Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and others.

How to grow hydropower in the United States

  • Streamline the current regulatory process to cut excessive red tape. 
  • Have the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) coordinate the federal permitting process of hydroelectric dams. 
    • Currently the Federal Energy Regulatory Council manages permitting approval, yet has no mechanism to ensure that other agencies comply. Allowing CEQ to be in charge could lead to a faster and more efficient permitting process
  • Invest in, and update, existing dams. 
    • The American Society of Engineers has given current American dams and levees a “D” grade. 
  • Where possible, retrofit current dams to generate electricity. 
    • The United States currently has 80,000 dams that do not generate electricity. 
      • Retrofitting these dams could generate “up to 12 GW of energy capacity without the environmental consequences of building new dams.”


  • Hydropower is a clean and renewable energy source that is important in an “all of the above” energy strategy. 
  • The current regulatory process is cumbersome and slows down the development of hydroelectricity in the United States. 
  • By reducing regulations and streamlining the permitting process, we can grow hydropower in the United States and meet our climate goals.
Done in partnership with the American Conservation Coalition (ACC).

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