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Marching Towards A Decarbonized Future Without Leaving Communities Behind

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Kurt Miller's picture
Executive Director Northwest RiverPartners

Kurt Miller, the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, is a clean energy and community advocate supporting hydropower for a better Northwest. Kurt joined Northwest RiverPartners in March...

  • Member since 2020
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  • May 26, 2021 5:29 am GMT
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021 - 05 - Grid Modernization, click here for more

We’ve often been told that Alexander Graham Bell wouldn’t recognize today’s smartphone, but that Thomas Edison would feel right at home with the present-day electric grid. However, the ability to make that comparison is going the way of the incandescent lightbulb.

When we think of modern demand response applications, the integrated grid, synchro phasers, electrolysis used to produce green hydrogen, and the proliferation of renewable energy resources, I think Mr. Edison would be highly impressed. (He might also be a bit jealous that the most valuable car company in the world carries the Tesla name.)

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I, for one, am very charged up—sorry—about the direction we are heading, but I also recognize that we’re not there yet. I see potential missteps that could ultimately thwart the move to a modernized, decarbonized grid.

I would like to take credit for airing these concerns but will give it to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Earlier this year, NASEM issued a statement to Congress. The statement warned that, while a decarbonized US electric grid is technically feasible, the financial costs of reaching this goal could leave our most vulnerable communities behind.

It is disheartening that the communities which are most impacted by climate change could be hurt the most by initiatives to fight climate change.

To avoid this outcome, NASEM recommends preserving our operating hydropower and nuclear generation facilities. These zero-carbon resources are typically fully depreciated (i.e., paid for), thereby lowering their costs to customers. At the same time, they provide the needed flexibility to respond to fluctuations of solar and wind generation, so that the grid can maintain its perfect balance.

We can do even better by allocating our limited resources wisely. For example, hundreds of billions of dollars are going towards battery development so that we can integrate intermittent renewables safely and cleanly into the grid. However, the most advanced commercially available utility-scale batteries are mostly trying to break the six-hour barrier. Meanwhile, hydropower facilities with moderately-sized reservoirs can provide peaking power for days at time.

That brings us to a vision that is more inclusive of our broader carbon reduction and affordability goals.

What if we repurposed a fraction of the battery R&D budget to add hydroelectric generators to some of the 97% of US dams that don’t produce electricity? Or, what if we used some of the upcoming infrastructure package dollars to replace existing hydropower turbines with advanced turbines that produce more zero-carbon electricity and safely pass over 99% of the juvenile salmon they encounter?

This isn’t a situation where we need to fight between the alternate visions of Edison vs. Tesla. Ensuring communities are not left behind means taking a inventive approach that examines how existing technologies can be leveraged and enhanced in partnership with new technologies to meet our decarbonization goals. Let's do this together.  

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 26, 2021

What if we repurposed a fraction of the battery R&D budget to add hydroelectric generators to some of the 97% of US dams that don’t produce electricity?

Are a majority of those 97% of dams primed and well-suited for hydroelectricity? And if so, what is the hold up? 

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