Chicken Soup for the Hydropower Soul

Those who remember NBC’s Saturday Night Live of the early 1990s undoubtedly recall Al Franken, who, after serving as both a cast member and writer for the show, has since become a New York Times best-selling author, a talk show host, and, most recently, a United States Senator from Minnesota.

And though Franken indeed looked (and acted) every bit a senator in his pinstripe suit and freshly polished wingtips as he slid quietly into the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee chamber this past week, it was still a surreal moment for me as he casually took his seat and began mulling over several pieces of legislation that could each have significant impacts on the future of the American hydropower industry.

Try as I might, it was hard not to imagine Franken reprising what might be his best remembered role — the endearingly aloof, well-coiffed, cardigan-wearing host of Saturday Night Live‘s recurring “Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley” sketches — as he sat in front of me.

But as I listened to the support offered for the Hydropower Improvement Act, Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development Act and Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act by both Franken and others on the Senate Energy Committee, I began to realize just how relevant Stuart Smalley’s trademark phrase has become for domestic hydroelectric development in recent months.

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me,” Smalley would say, and even though Sen. Ron Wyden perhaps captured the sentiment more concisely by emphatically telling the Senate Energy Committee that “hydro is back”, Smalley’s line still rings true.

As luck would have it, the committee’s hearing on the package of hydroelectric bills coincided squarely with the National Hydropower Association’s Annual Conference — also held in Washington, D.C. — making it possible to get an immediate pulse from some of the industry’s proverbial “big dogs” who have, undoubtedly, been following the legislation just as closely I have.

Now, to say that the NHA and its members are already planning a victory party would be ignoring the fact that there is still much work to be done before the bills are placed on President Obama’s desk.

The sense of optimism shared by both those in attendance at the NHA conference and the politicians who have advocated for the legislation on Capitol Hill was palpable, however, and frankly, refreshingly contrary to the general mood I perceived in Washington just 12 months prior.

The subdued tone last year seemed to be one fueled by the uncertainty of election year politics, and the way previous incarnations of these hydropower bills died in the hands of the 112th Congress reflect that assertion.

At the very least then, Obama’s reelection allows for some philosophical continuity — a matter of importance to the industry as the President’s “all-of-the-above” plan includes hydropower as a means of bolstering America’s renewable portfolio.

Granted, those familiar with the all-of-the-above plan know the emphasis has largely been on developing solar, wind and geothermal technologies, often treating hydroelectricity — to quote Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Anne Castle — like “the ugly stepsister”.

The discussions and testimony I heard while in Washington make it clear, however, that hydroelectricity is now very much on the minds of America’s policy makers given its practicality, reliability, and, perhaps most important, affordability — changing hydropower from an also-ran to a primary consideration.

“The fact that four of the first five energy bills considered by the committee this year promote hydropower shows how important this resource can be to a clean energy future,” Wyden told the Senate committee.

That support isn’t coming exclusively from one party or one interest group is also significant, and it only reinforces the notion that those outside the industry are taking strong note of hydropower’s many virtues.

“You have legislative gridlock for as far as the eye can see — except for hydro,” Wyden said. “It seems to me that what hydro has done in the last few years is to become the gold standard in terms of collaboration and showing how you can bring people together.”

As I mentioned earlier, work must still be done within the Senate before any of the bills discussed last week go before President Obama for enactment.

That said, it’s truly an exciting time for hydropower and I look forward to seeing how each of these acts progresses during the current congressional session.

In the meantime though, maybe those in industry should just take a moment to channel their inner Stuart Smalley by putting on their favorite pastel sweater, looking reassuringly into the mirror, and reminding themselves that, “Hydro is good enough, hydro is smart enough, and doggone it, people like us.”

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for

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