Hydropower is already a highly developed sector in the United States. It is the country’s largest source of renewable electricity, occupying almost half the share of generation from renewables in 2014 and providing around 6 per cent of the country’s total power.
Although there is the potential for hydropower development in every US state, installed capacity is currently concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. The Columbia River basin alone provides more than 40 per cent of the country’s hydropower. There is also a considerable deployment in New York State and the New England states in the north-east of the country.
There is the potential to develop a large amount of additional hydropower capacity in the United States – more than 65,000 MW in stream-reach developments, according to the US Department of Energy. A further 12,000 MW could be brought online by adding powerhouses to existing dams and water infrastructure.
There are more than 80,000 dams in the US, of which only 3 per cent currently have electricity-generating equipment installed. Adding power-producing capability to just 100 of the most viable sites – mostly locks and dams on the Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas Rivers managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers – could contribute approximately 8 GW of new hydropower capacity.
Nonetheless, investment has remained limited, partly due to uncertainties in the country’s energy policy, markets and regulatory environment, which have discouraged capital investment. Social and environmental challenges have also dissuaded new development in some areas of the US.
In the US, hydropower is the only renewable electricity resource licensed at the federal level. It is also subject to reviews from the state and local levels of government. The US Congress is currently considering multiple pieces of legislation to update and modernise the licensing and relicensing process for non-federal hydropower projects.
Policy priorities differ from state to state, with some regions of the country moving more aggressively on clean and renewable energy programmes than others. However, the recognition and treatment of hydropower as a clean or renewable resource under these policies, including programmes like the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), varies significantly from state to state.
This further complicates the advancement of hydropower or other renewable options both within the US and in partnership with Canada.
Non-federal hydropower projects are subject to regulation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). There are currently 223 proposed projects registered with FERC, which would amount to 23,981 MW of installed capacity. These projects are currently in various phases of the FERC licensing process (Preliminary Permits Pending, Preliminary Permits Issued and Original License).
American Municipal Power (AMP), a non-profit corporation, has been particularly active in new developments on the Ohio River. Three new run-of-river facilities totalling 191 MW in capacity are expected to commence commercial operation later in 2016. These projects – Cannelton (84 MW), Smithland (72 MW) and Willow Island (35 MW) – are all located at existing US Army Corps of Engineers dams.
AMP is also expecting to commission the 105 MW Meldahl hydroelectric facility in 2016, a run-of-river project which will become the largest hydropower project on the Ohio River.
Additionally, Consumers Energy, a public utility in Michigan, is investing heavily to upgrade its Ludington Pumped Storage Plant. The USD 800 million renovation includes replacing six existing pump-turbine units, now running at about 70 per cent cycle efficiency, with larger units to improve the power output by nearly 15 per cent.. When complete, the upgrade will increase generating capacity from its current 1,872 MW to approximately 2,172 MW.
This country profile is featured in the 2017 Hydropower Status Report. You can download the full report here.
This profile was last updated in May 2016.