Taking a New Look at Hydropower

04/27/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

Climate change is happening - and we are (largely) done denying it. President Obama enforced this in his 2015 State of the Union address, stating that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change." Despite lawmakers in the state of Florida burying their heads in the sand to avoid it, the ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising. At this point, we are completely reliant on our abuse of natural resources, and disentangling our lifestyles and industries from environmental damage is not on the immediate horizon. But now, in 2015, we can finally envision a world where we will no longer have to rely on energy sources that damage the environment.

In the U.S., coal, natural gas, and crude oil are the leaders in energy production. There is good news in all these sectors this year - "clean coal" has been developed to contain carbon emissions, natural gas in shale fracking is allowing reshoring of our energy supplies, and crude oil imports have, for the first time in decades, dropped below domestic production levels. These changes are definitely making progress in the right direction environmentally, economically, and politically, but the hard facts show that even with this progress, these industries are still hazardous and are having a negative impact on the environment. According to the World Economic Forum, approximately 89% of energy in non-renewable resources such as gas, coal, and oil is lost between production and final use.

Such a strong emphasis on reducing carbon emissions has highlighted hydropower and nuclear power as ideal solutions in energy production. Even though both dam-building and nuclear fission are friendly to lowering carbon emissions, they are now coming under scrutiny due to the litany of other threats they cause. Damming misses the mark for sustainability due to long-term environmental impacts of controlling and redirecting the natural flow of waterways. Dams are highly damaging to ecological systems, negatively impact downstream populations, and are extraordinarily expensive to build and maintain. Nuclear energy produces massive amounts of hazardous runoff that have to be stored in metal and concrete. Both dams and nuclear power plants pose significant risk to surrounding populations because they are vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

The continuing reliance on dams for hydropower fails to take advantage of modern technologies that have higher capacity to yield more efficient energy. Interestingly, there has been a recent trend of decommissioning dams globally, creating a need for viable alternatives in hydropower to replace them (World Commission on Dams 2000). Emerging technologies in hydropower are far more efficient. The key to making hydropower compatible with climate change is embracing these new technologies that eliminate both damage to the environment and negative impacts on downstream populations. This more efficient technology yields higher energy output, while eliminating pollutants caused by other forms of energy derivation. If these technologies are not invested in, the demand for energy will be forced to return to a reliance on non-renewable resources. Eventually, our domestic oil wells will run dry, and our accessible coal lines will be exhausted. If we take a long-range view of energy production, the urgency of developing renewable energy sources becomes more evident.

What about areas in drought? Arid regions would previously have been poor candidates for hydropower. However, with new technology available, such as in-pipe turbines, energy is generated by the water flowing through the pipes. If the water has to flow through the pipes anyway, this technology takes advantage of the flow to capture the energy. In regions with rivers flowing year-round, in-river turbines capture the energy of the water's flow without disrupting the local and downstream ecological balance.

Some criticize that the environmental movement is losing momentum with the U.S. opting out of the Kyoto Protocol - the most comprehensive attempt toward global climate change to date. However, there are signs that progress is being made in this regard outside of the formal international structures. Influence may be coming from an unlikely contributor in the insurance industry, which some experts say has the "potential to influence future patterns of climate policy [...] by increasing its support for technology innovation and development" (Jagers & Stripple 2003). Developing these technologies further so that they are widely accessible is the next step.

Experts on energy production and consumption in the U.S. project that these investments will rise by "several hundred billion dollars per year before 2030" (2014 Synthesis Report). This week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released their annual outlook report, which predicted for the first time that the US will be fully self-reliant in energy by 2037.

The U.S. is in a unique position to embrace these new technologies and take the lead in influencing other nations to commit to the global effort as well. The U.S. has been one of the major culprits in environmental degradation, and adopting these new technologies is a win-win for current and future generations. Despite setbacks due to state-centered interests, the indiscriminate effects of environmental damage have spurred on cooperation and shared perspectives as these shared concern have risen in prominence in recent years (Dyer 2001). While nations are still grappling over whether to declare this an issue of national concern, social values have already shifted. Commitment to ecological protection "has been adopted as a social value in advance of any state identifying it as a matter of national interest" (Dyer 2001). This generation is witnessing the emergence of a perspective on global social welfare that is prioritizing ecological issues (Buzan 2008), (Jagers & Stripple 2003).

It's only a matter of time before our laws and technology catch up.

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Buzan, Barry. People, States, and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era. ECPR Press, 2008. p. 172.

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Hugh Dyer, "Environmental Security and International Relations: The Case for Enclosure." Review of International Studies (June 2001).

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