Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

The Benefits of Small-Scale Hydropower

Powering your life with energy from the sun is clean, efficient and less expensive over time than coal-powered electricity

Historically, hydro power was used for grist mills and lumber mills and eventually for producing electricity. Hydroelectric power can be viewed as having negative impacts because of large scale operations, such as Hydro-Quebec. Larger scale operations can inundate land on which surrounding communities live or use for sustenance, along with producing negative effects on aquatic ecosystems. However, small scale hydro power operations are a viable option for low impact renewable energy production. As with every aspect of energy consumption there are costs, but they are minor compared to the costs imposed by large scale hydro and especially fossil fuels. The environmental impact from small-scale hydro is minimal, the economic impact (in the long run) is somewhat reduced, and the negative effects on social well-fare that are common with large-scale hydro or fossil fuel usage are limited to none. Putting an end to our rampant consumption of both resources and energy is the best cure for our ailing planet. Renewable energy technologies are a necessary step toward a healthier environment. The challenge we face in implementing small-scale hydro operations is mainly political and social.

Small-scale, environmentally responsible hydro power has the ability to fill in much of the energy gap that will be created with the discontinuation of Vermont Yankee, if indeed we are lucky enough to be rid of it. The state of Vermont has many streams and rivers with a potential for hydropower. It is important to ensure the preservation of rivers and streams that are untouched and harbor endangered or rare species. If installed with conservation and sustainability in mind, we stand to gain a great source of clean and renewable power. Unfortunately, our current government is not supporting hydro power as it should be. In 1978, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) was passed to aid in the use of domestic energy. Amendments to PURPA have reduced the economic benefits of small-hydro as contracts with utilities have  run out. This leaves the small hydro operators susceptible to spot market prices and the high cost of regulations imposed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Large utilities can easily pay the costs of inspections and now are permitted to pay the small operations much less for their energy contributions. This creates a situation in which micro hydro in Vermont and elsewhere does not meet its potential. Pumping huge amounts of energy into our ailing grid is not the best solution to our energy woes, whether or not it’s coming from fossil fuels or large scale renewables.

Currently, many people believe that renewables plugged into the grid are the direction we should be heading in; however, I would argue that the most viable way of ensuring energy security for our state is to localize it. We must stop exporting the energy we have and importing energy from elsewhere. Several different forms of renewable energy systems can be used to accomplish this, and hydro-electric power is one of them. Vermont has an abundance of streams and rivers whose energy can be harnessed to benefit our communities without degrading our environment. Some hydro power operations do not impede the flow of the stream or river, thus the impact is close to nothing. This method of energy production is also a proven technology.

Thus, our goal needs to be promoting government subsidies that will support small hydro. We must bring these issues to our local representatives in an effort to mobilize local energy and end our reliance on outside energy sources. If we are connected to the national grid we are using coal, oil, and other dirty fuels to produce electricity. Hydro power is just another step toward energy independence and responsible interaction with the natural world on which we depend. I love kayaking or hiking along untouched rivers and streams, but without clean energy those very same rivers and streams will be subject to the many negative effects of climate change. Will we make the right choice and embrace localized energy? My hope is that we cease acting in a way that degrades the environment, taking steps such as building micro-hydro, to ensure that our children live in world that is healthy and full of the diversity and plenitude we have enjoyed ourselves.

By Emily Marsh
GET Aug2011 page 14

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