Guest Opinion: Trump May Make Dams Great Again

The renovation and upgrade of existing dams currently being used for hydropower generation could serve as U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s legacy.

In late August 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy released its Electricity Markets and Reliability report. In May, I wrote about how the administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump mandated the report, and I warned coal and nuclear investors not to assume it would save their bacon. It didn’t. The report blames coal’s decline on the shale gas revolution. It preaches a market-based approach where the government shouldn’t pick winners and losers through subsidies and bailouts.

I found the report’s real eye-opener to be its boost to dams: It argues that Washington should cut regulations to make it easier to license and relicense hydroelectric projects.

Dams. Remember those? Anyone who has visited Hoover Dam and had their breath taken away by what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “this great feat of mankind” will forever marvel at the engineering miracle of dams. Dams have generated electricity and produced zero carbon dioxide for more than a century.

DOE’s advice could be good for the U.S. economy and the environment. At a time when everybody is talking about a need for more bipartisanship, dams and hydropower look precisely like the kind of thing President Donald Trump, Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to rally around. Following DOE’s advice could help the energy industry achieve several of Trump’s goals: increasing domestic energy production, adding blue-collar jobs and increasing spending on infrastructure projects to boost the economy.

Were there to be an investment program to renovate and upgrade dams and possibly even build new ones, it would be a fiscal boon for the U.S. economy. It would likely also give the Trump administration a substantive energy policy that promotes one of the oldest forms of renewable energy. And guess what? We may not even need any new dams. We just need our old dams to work better.

Dams can serve another purpose for Trump. He, like his predecessors, wants to leave a legacy – something spectacular he can put his name on. Hydroelectric dams fit that bill. Take Hoover Dam, named after President Herbert Hoover but best remembered as one of the finest achievements of Roosevelt’s New Deal era. Completed in the mid-1930s, the Art Deco structure was the most expensive engineering project in the country at the time and produces about 4 billion kWh of power each year for 1.3 million people.

In the U.S. and Canada, there are 800 hydroelectric facilities. On average, they are 60 years old, and many could benefit from being refurbished so as to extend their useful lives. At its peak in the 1930s, hydroelectricity made up 40% of power generation in America. Today, that number has dwindled to about 7%.

True, dams, especially new dams, aren’t as popular with environmentalists as they used to be, but they should be. Fixer-upper dams are a win-win. If your focus is on climate, dams and hydropower ought to be low on your taboo list. Large-scale refitting of old dams should settle nerves among the green lobby, which grouses that new dams are bad for the environment, disrupting fish, wildlife and land irrigation.

President Trump could go even further, by also investing in the more than 84,000 existing dams and reservoirs. A report from the Center for American Progress notes, “A frightening number of dams and levees have been allowed to fall into disrepair. A combination of aging and government neglect means many of these structures struggle to remain operational or even structurally sound. More alarming still is that changing settlement patterns have resulted in hundreds of dams and levees never designed to protect human life now being expected to safeguard the thousands who have moved into nearby flood zones.”

For anyone wanting to embrace the notion of spending on dams, DOE has created a blueprint of “ways the United States can further diversify its energy portfolio with sustainable and clean domestic power generation” that focuses on dams. In the 2014 report, DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimated there is more than 65 GW of potential new hydropower development possible across more than 3 million U.S. rivers and streams – an amount nearly equal to current U.S. hydropower generation.

For a president looking for ways to boost U.S. energy production, and a great way to boost infrastructure spending that could get bipartisan support in Washington, hydropower would seem to serve him well.

Michael Krancer is senior counsel, energy at Blank Rome LLP and co-founder and principal of Silent Majority Strategies LLC, an energy-focused regulatory strategy, permitting strategy and messaging firm.



Editor’s Note: This article was excerpted from a larger piece published on and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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