As laboratories of democracy, states deserve a victory lap for enacting renewable portfolio standards that have helped transform our electricity system. But as the original purposes of these laws have been largely achieved, states can now accelerate deeper progress toward what we really want: a 100 percent clean electricity grid that is also affordable and reliable.

Unfortunately, by failing to allow all carbon-free technologies to compete equally, leading states are on the brink of adopting policies that miss the opportunity to achieve all three objectives simultaneously.  

Over the last two decades, state renewable portfolio standard laws have enjoyed durable bipartisan support and are credited with driving a $64 billion market for wind, solar and other renewable electricity resources. RPS targets or goals, adopted by 37 states as well Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, were designed to create a market for these nascent renewable technologies to develop sufficient economies of scale and drive down their costs. To a great extent, that goal has been achieved.

With this mission accomplished, a growing number of states have decided to up their ante and adopt 100 percent clean energy standards. Started by Hawaii and California, eight states have now adopted such laws, with another wave of state legislatures expected to consider 100 percent CES bills in 2020.

Why the new RPS wave is different

States need to recognize that the purpose of these statutes is fundamentally different. The same policies that have helped spur the development of new renewables are failing to recognize the needs of generation resources that partner well with wind and solar. Some of the choices include coal and natural gas, but those resources emit carbon. Batteries are another option, but the technology is still emerging and won’t meet all long-duration needs.

The best option of today and tomorrow is the nation’s first renewable resource: hydropower — a flexible and reliable clean resource that helps to integrate other renewables onto the grid.

Historic RPS laws purposely excluded existing mature renewable generation because they were intended to encourage the development of nascent technologies. In contrast, 100 percent clean energy standards are intended to achieve an outcome-based goal: a carbon-free grid that remains cost-effective and will support the decarbonization of other sectors such as transportation. As such, it’s critical that such laws apply performance-based criteria (such as zero- or low-carbon generation) and refrain from picking winners and losers.

Unfortunately, a number of the leading states are at risk of falling short.

Under New York's RPS, only hydropower under 30 megawatts is eligible for certain renewable energy credits. However, while the state’s newly passed 70 percent clean energy standard currently lists hydro under its definition of renewable energy, some groups are urging state regulators to exclude certain hydropower projects, despite the carbon-free benefits they provide.

California is in a similar position. Despite the fact that hydropower generates nearly 13 percent of the state's total power, California’s RPS only counts hydropower projects under 30 megawatts as an eligible renewable. As part of its new goal to achieve 100 percent zero-carbon power by 2045, California is currently undergoing a regulatory proceeding to determine resource eligibility. We believe existing hydropower projects of all sizes merit inclusion.

Unfortunately, the common link between these states is that the environmental attributes of hydropower are undervalued — or in many instances, altogether unvalued — despite the fact that hydropower provides the same carbon-free energy as other renewable resources. 

Huge opportunity without a need for new dams

State policymakers throughout the country may not realize that they are putting existing hydropower assets at risk. This has led to some existing hydro projects being shuttered because they cannot compete in the market while other resources are receiving incentives.

At the same time, it discourages investment in new hydropower, including pumped storage, upgrades of existing infrastructure and new projects at existing non-powered dams.

Indeed, states should be looking to leverage the benefits of all renewable resources — both new and existing — to achieve a reliable and cost-effective clean energy future.

Hydropower is uniquely positioned in this regard. In addition to providing clean energy, hydro provides flexibility, resiliency and reliability benefits to the electrical grid through services such as fast start and ramping, system inertia, primary frequency, voltage regulation and control, black start and long-duration load balancing. 

Today, the U.S. hydropower industry generates roughly 7 percent of our nation’s electricity without burning any fossil fuels. And with only 3 percent of America’s existing 90,000 non-powered dams equipped to generate power, hydropower’s growth potential is immense.

In recent years, American Municipal Power has brought online four hydropower facilities on existing dams along the Ohio River, adding more than 300 megawatts of clean electricity generation capacity. And this fall, the Red Rock Hydroelectric Project in Pella, Iowa is scheduled to start generating power. Built on an existing non-powered dam, it will generate enough clean electricity to meet the needs of the 18,000 homes within Marion County.

Washington state's hydro example

In fact, there are hundreds of hydropower projects within the federal licensing pipeline that could provide the missing pieces to our long-term climate solution puzzle — without building new dams.

Discriminating against hydropower in clean energy standard policies puts hydro at a disadvantage vis-a-vis other renewables, and undervalues hydropower’s clean energy and grid characteristics, especially in light of the fact that hydropower helps to integrate more wind and solar onto the grid.

Fortunately, some states are taking a better approach. Last year, Washington state passed legislation requiring 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. The bill allows all existing hydropower generation to be used for compliance and to generate renewable energy credits. 

Washington state’s example proves that governors and legislators can achieve their ambitious climate and clean energy goals and reduce household and business costs by resisting the temptation to pick technological winners and losers and instead establishing technology-neutral, performance-based clean energy standards. We hope other states follow its example.


Malcolm Woolf is the president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association.