Vanderbilt Law Review


Dan Tarlock

First Page



Hydroelectric energy ("hydro") is the oldest major source of noncarbon, renewable energy in the United States. For three reasons, increased hydro generation should be a major element of any national climate change and energy-security policy designed to promote the greater use of renewables to help the country transition to the production of sustainable, i.e., noncarbon-based, energy. First, hydro is relatively clean because it does not cause air pollution or substantial greenhouse gas emissions.' Second, hydro is relatively reliable. Third, hydro can help wean the United States from its dependence on imported and often politically unstable hydrocarbon sources of energy, because the resource is widely available, and substantial undeveloped capacity exists. In addition, many nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and Canada are investing heavily in new hydro facilities. The Energy Information Administration ("EIA") projects that worldwide hydro-generating capacity will grow at a rate of 2% from 2008 to 2035. However, in the United States, hydro is treated as the stepchild of renewable energy law and policy. Given hydro's benefits, it is logical to ask: is the United States as out of step with world energy policy as it is with climate change policy? The current expert consensus answer is no: increased hydro generation will not be a major component of any carbon or noncarbon U.S. energy future. Hydro currently supplies 42% of the 7% of domestic energy production generated by renewable resources. Most "authoritative" energy scenarios suggest that, for the foreseeable future, hydro's share will be flat or experience only modest increases.

The EIA estimates that the United States' hydro-generating capacity is projected to grow at a rate of only 0.1% per year. Initially, this conclusion is paradoxical because the International Energy Agency ("IEA") estimates that the United States has tapped only 16% of its potential hydro production. The conventional answer to this paradox is that hydro is nonetheless a developed technology, has high environmental costs compared to wind and solar energy, and is both a climate change adaptation option and an energy source stressed by climate change. Therefore, the prevailing consensus is that there is no both new development and the operation of existing projects. Fourth, it examines the efforts underway to stimulate new "little" hydro projects and improve the operation of "big" projects. Fifth, it asks the heretical question: is it worth considering repealing or modifying the existing laws, primarily the environmental laws put in place in the 1970s that now constrain hydro, to increase hydro capacity? If so, which laws would be on the chopping block and what would be changed? The Article concludes by proposing two scenarios. The first maintains the status quo as an object lesson in externality control for nonhydro renewables. The second proposes a new river management regime premised on the maintenance of base flows for both aquatic ecosystem conservation and hydro production.