While Congress debates cutting support for wind and solar energy, a new bill from members of the House Energy Committee proposes spending $5 million to study the potential of expanding hydropower in the U.S.

HB 3680, introduced by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), notes that only 3 percent of the nearly 80,000 dams in the U.S. generate electricity. The bill claims that by 2025, we could build an additional 60,000 MW of new hydropower generation, creating 700,000 jobs in the process.

About 7 percent of electricity in the U.S. is generated from hydropower, and Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ home state of Washington already gets nearly 70 percent of its electricity from big dams like the Grand Coulee. It’s a less significant energy source in the Midwest, accounting for less than 2 percent of the mix in most states. South Dakota is the outlier, getting more than half its electricity from hydro.

The bill also includes a provision to study the potential of closed-loop pumped hydro storage projects.

While 80,000 dams sounds like a lot of untapped energy potential, as reporter Frank Jossi learned back in June, most of those dams are small, low volume and not at present economically viable to be tapped for energy. As of this summer, developers had applications on the table for an additional 321 MW of capacity on existing dams and locks throughout the upper Mississippi River system, doubling the river’s current energy capacity, but still a far cry from 60,000.

And pumped-hydro storage also has limited potential. Federal regulators have issued permits for 32,000 MW worth of pumped-hydro projects nationwide, but cost-effectiveness again remains a challenge.

In a news release announcing the bill, Michigan Rep. Fred Upton calls hydropower an important part of an “all of the above” energy strategy.

“Hydropower is renewable, reliable, and affordable, and the potential for this domestic resource is great. The increased development of hydropower will spur the creation of hundreds of thousands of American jobs and help us to meet our country’s growing energy demands.”

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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