Pete Sepp is executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.
If the producers of the popular television show MythBusters ever decided to permanently relocate their facilities to Washington, D.C., they'd certainly never lack for script ideas. Though knowing where to begin is a difficult task, perhaps one place would be energy policy. After all, public officials often seem to prefer focusing on anything but delivering affordable power that consumers and businesses can employ to help our economy recover.
One such myth—or at least a too-commonly held perception these days—is that in the future additional renewable energy production can only stem from wind, solar, and more exotic sources like biomass. Yet, as a recently-released study from the Department of Energy posits, there's still considerable potential in a renewable option that's been a part of electricity generation in the United States for some 130 years: water.
According to the department's analysis, roughly 54,000 existing dam sites on American waterways could be upgraded to provide generating facilities capable of delivering in excess of 12 gigawatts of electricity—an increase of more than 15 percent over current hydropower capacity. Such a boost of energy supply could, in theory, power more than 4 million homes. This may be an optimistic scenario, and actual output would depend on many factors, including the propensity of government regulators to slam their iron fists down on projects that don't involve large sums of federal money or politically fashionable technologies. Still, the ability of hydropower to improve electric grids is palpable. As Deborah D. Thornton of the Public Interest Institute wrote:
Hydropower plants on the two dams on the Des Moines River—Red Rock and Saylorville—have a potential capacity of another 90 megawatts, which could produce enough energy to power 36,000 homes. This is about 40 percent of the homes in Des Moines. Again, the Department of Energy is careful to say that many factors would impact the electrical power production capacity on the dam sites, but the potential is there.
Considering the study was released under an administration with a rather poor track record of allowing a true "all of the above" energy strategy, the Department of Energy was remarkably candid in explaining one key advantage of hydropower over other methods, though not acknowledging the flaws of lavishing taxpayer money on those same methods:
The resource assessment also finds many potential hydropower sites are located in areas of the country with fewer wind or solar resources, giving nearby communities another way to secure renewable energy for local families and businesses. And because hydropower provides reliable baseload power day and night, developing existing dams could also provide flexibility and diversity to the electric grid and allow utilities to integrate other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Even environmental critics of hydropower's effects on rivers and wildlife ought to avoid being too skeptical. It bears mentioning again that the Department of Energy studied only "non-powered dams" that have already been built, meaning, the department asserts, that "many of these dams could also likely be converted to power-generating facilities with minimal impact to critical species, habitats, parks, or wilderness areas."
For their part, taxpayers have good reason to be optimistic over the department's findings. Although some of the best hydropower capability can be found on the lock and dam systems of the Army Corps of Engineers—which has a long history of pursuing federally funded boondoggles— involving private investors in developing those sites is no pipe dream, especially if federal regulatory procedures are improved. For example, the industry itself is calling for streamlined licensing-approval for "minimal impact" projects.
If only the administration could be more forthcoming in other energy policy areas, among them its on-again, off-again, dodging-and-weaving stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Fortunately though, we have the benefit of another analysis, this one from the respected economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, to clear up one often misconstrued aspect of this debate.
Furchtgott-Roth examined Department of Transportation data to test the contention from opponents of Keystone XL and other oil and gas pipelines that this transmission mode involves serious safety problems. That contention fails on numerous counts. On a ton-mile basis, virtually all dry natural gas and 71 percent of crude oil and petroleum products in the United States is shipped through pipelines. And, whether expressed as incident, fatality, or injury rates, pipelines came out as the safest way of transporting such materials. Furchtgott-Roth observes:
Some claim that pipelines carrying Canadian oil sands crude, known as diluted bitumen, have more internal corrosion, and are subject to more incidents. However, PHMSA [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] data show no incidents of oil releases from corrosion from Canadian diluted bitumen between 2002 and 2010. Oil sands crude has been transported in American pipelines for the past decade.
The evidence is clear: transporting oil and natural gas by pipeline is safe and environmentally friendly … As America continues to ramp up production of oil and natural gas, our pipeline infrastructure becomes more important. We need better pipelines to get oil from North Dakota to the refineries in the Gulf, and natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania (and New York, should the Empire State allow production to move forward) and the Utica Shale in Ohio to the rest of the country.
These are but two of many wake-up calls that our leaders should be heeding on energy policy. Perhaps turning up the "ringer volume" from the voices of everyday Americans—so they can be heard above the din of special interests seeking more taxpayer handouts—will get the job done.
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