A dialogue organized by Stanford that brought together environmental organizations, hydropower companies, investors, government agencies and universities has resulted in an important new agreement to help address climate change by advancing both the renewable energy and storage benefits of hydropower and the environmental and economic benefits of healthy rivers.

A new agreement brings together hydropower and river conservation communities to fight climate change while restoring and sustaining rivers. (Image credit: pixabay)

Dan Reicher, a former U.S. assistant secretary of energy, and board member of the conservation group American Rivers, launched and helped lead the meetings, which were the product of a Stanford Uncommon Dialogue – a format design to allow leaders from different sectors to debate and develop practical solutions to pressing environmental challenges. The dialogue began in March 2018 and was convened by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, where Reicher is a senior research scholar, Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, where Reicher was the founding executive director, and the Energy Futures Initiative, led by former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.

Reicher has special credentials to rally this effort. In addition to his role with the Department of Energy, he also served as Google’s director of climate and energy initiatives and as co-founder and president of a renewable energy investment firm. On the riverfront, he was part of a National Geographic-funded kayak expedition that was the first to navigate the entire 1,888-mile Rio Grande and a member of another group that was the first on record to kayak the Great Gorges of the Yangtze, before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest power plant in the world.

Reicher spoke with us about brokering this new agreement to protect and conserve rivers while charting hydropower’s role in a clean energy future.


Why did the hydropower and environmental communities decide to come together on this agreement?

The groups and companies coming together on the joint statement were motivated by two urgent challenges: How do we rapidly and substantially decarbonize the nation’s electricity system to fight climate change? And how do we improve our nation’s rivers and the ecosystem services and biodiversity they provide, which are vulnerable to climate change as well as habitat loss and altered river processes?

We held six dialogue meetings with leading organizations, companies and agencies over two-and-a-half years to develop the joint statement. We also involved students in the dialogue, with the exciting potential for real-world impact on our energy and environmental future. Stanford graduate students in a policy practicum at Stanford Law School researched hydropower economics, dam safety and basin-scale decision-making, while Stanford engineering students, with funding from the Department of Energy, worked on improving access to U.S. river-related data to support basin-scale decision-making.


What is the role of hydropower in the fight against climate change?

To address climate change, the U.S. has to cut its carbon emissions and a key strategy for that is transitioning the electricity sector to renewable energy. As this new joint statement recognizes, U.S. hydropower is an important renewable energy resource and it also helps integrate variable energy sources like solar and wind into the U.S. electric grid through dam operations and a major electricity storage technology called pumped storage. However, as the joint statement also recognizes, in order to restore and sustain the health of our nation’s rivers, we have to find ways to reduce the environmental and safety impacts of U.S. dams, protect natural and cultural resources, and increase the climate resilience of our waterways.


What does this agreement mean for dams in the U.S.?

There are more than 90,000 dams across the nation. Only about 2,500 include hydropower facilities, while the rest don’t generate electricity. Dams serve many other roles such as flood control, water supply, irrigation and recreation. But some dams pose serious safety risks or just have out-lived their usefulness.

The joint statement focuses on what we call the “three R’s.” The first is the need to “rehabilitate” dams to address safety problems, increase climate resilience and mitigate environmental impacts. Secondly, we need to “retrofit” powered dams and add generation at non-powered dams to increase renewable energy production. Retrofitting also includes developing more pumped storage capacity at existing dams and enhancing dam and reservoir operations for water supply, fish passage, flood mitigation and grid integration of solar and wind. The third R is “removal” – when dams should be taken down because they no longer provide benefits to society, have safety issues that can’t be cost-effectively resolved, or have harmful impacts on the environment that can’t be adequately addressed.

The joint statement also addresses the development of new “closed loop” pumped storage for renewable energy, which is promising because, unlike traditional “open loop” pumped storage, this technology doesn’t involve construction of a new dam on a river.


What are the next steps and longer-term hopes for the future?

We’ve identified several areas of joint collaboration across these sectors and groups. These include: advocating for better U.S. dam safety and increased funding for the 3 R’s; accelerating development of hydropower technologies and practices to improve environmental and energy performance and solar and wind integration; increasing basin-scale decision-making and access to river-related data; advancing effective river restoration through better off-site mitigation strategies, and improving federal hydropower licensing and license surrender processes as well as the measurement and compensation for hydropower grid reliability and flexibility services.

Our plan over the next 60 days is to invite other key stakeholders, including tribal governments and state officials, to join the collaboration, and to address implementation priorities and decision-making. Over the longer term, we’re embarking on a collaborative effort to develop specific actions to maximize hydropower’s climate and other benefits, while also mitigating the environmental impact of dams and advancing environmental restoration. The parties have committed themselves to seizing these critical and timely opportunities.


Those familiar with your work on renewable energy may not have known about your interest in rivers until they read about your trip through Big Bend on the Rio Grande in The New Yorker, with some conservation heavyweights with names like Roosevelt and Udall. What is your personal connection to these issues?

My interest in renewable energy as well as river exploration and conservation goes back to the earliest days of my career. I’ve been able to pursue both on opposite ends of the country – from Washington, D.C., to Northern California. So many of the people I’ve met along the way have shared concerns. We’re all interested in advancing clean energy solutions to address the climate crisis. We also care about stewarding the waterways and natural landscapes that sustain us. My vision has been to bring people together from both of those worlds in a serious dialogue that could help us get beyond the decades-old battles over dams between the U.S. hydropower industry and the environmental community. With this agreement, I hope we can achieve some real progress in both fighting climate change and protecting rivers.

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Media Contacts

Dan Reicher, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: dreicher@stanford.edu

Devon Ryan, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: (650) 497-0444, devonr@stanford.edu