Mr. Harris Goes to Washington

It was said that when the State of Oklahoma asked its favorite son, Will Rogers, if they might sculpt his likeness for inclusion in the United States Capitol’s statuary, the cowboy from Oolagah gave his consent only on the condition that his statue face the House chamber so he could “keep an eye on Congress.”

Indeed, Rogers’ is the only of the 100 statues representing each of the 50 states that faces the chamber entrance, and popular legend has it that each President rubs his left shoe for good luck before delivering the annual State of the Union Address.

Although the once world-renowned humorist has slipped from the collective consciousness of most of those who didn’t grow up in northeastern Oklahoma, where field trips to the Rogers family homestead are an annual rite of passage for virtually every child — it’s surprising just how relevant the many books, columns and essays he penned on politics remain generations later.

Not just a trick roper turned vaudeville star, Rogers’ “aww, shucks” humility belied commentary that was remarkably astute in capturing the everyman sentiment of his day.

Essentially Jon Stewart, Garrison Keillor and Bob Hope rolled into one — he’s probably best remembered today for quipping that he “never yet met a man that [he] didn’t like”, though I often find myself reflecting on another Rogers quote while in our nation’s capital for the National Hydropower Association’s annual conference each spring.

“This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer,” Rogers wrote on the eve of America’s Great Depression. “And it’s a good thing we don’t get all the government that we pay for. But I tell you folks, all politics is applesauce.”

Rogers’ glib attitudes toward America’s federal legislative body was — and perhaps still is — understandable, but fortunately for the hydroelectric power sector, the feet-dragging bureaucracy so mocked by Rogers occasionally gives way to the sort of commonsense action I think he would have appreciated.

The industry saw this in action this past year, when President Barack Obama enacted the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013. The bill is designed to promote the small and in-conduit projects by shortening the regulatory timeframes required for such projects and has the potential to open the… err… floodgates for hydroelectric development, but to quote Rogers once more, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

Enter the U.S. Department of Energy and its audacious “Hydropower Vision” initiative, which, unveiled during the NHA’s annual conference this past week, seeks to create a long-term roadmap for the development of hydroelectric power within the context of America’s overall energy mix.

Specifically, the DOE project seeks industry input in addressing a number of issues related to cultivating domestic hydropower potential that, according to a new Oak Ridge National Laboratory study, could equate to more than 65,000 MW of energy.

“Hydropower can double its contributions by the year 2030,” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said. “We have to pick up the covers off of this hidden renewable that’s right in front of our eyes and continues to have significant potential.”

The primary goals of Hydropower Vision are to determine market and growth opportunities; how conventional and pumped-storage projects factor into America’s energy mix; hydropower’s environmental and social benefits; and what activities might be needed to realize its potential.

Most important, however, might be putting hydropower’s advantages into economic terms that would highlight its edge in the area most attractive to developers and operators: the bottom line.

“We’re looking to quantify and monetize [the attributes] that can be to allow us to have a comprehensive picture and a comprehensive set of data points that we can share with various stakeholders,” said Jose Zayas, Program Manager of DOE’s Wind and Water Power Program.

Doing so would better position hydroelectricity as an enticing consideration alongside other forms of renewable energy, though as both Zayas and Moniz noted, America’s energy mix of the future will undoubtedly rely on multiple forms of generation with an ever-increasing emphasis on carbon reduction.

“The President has an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and clearly, hydro is part of that,” Moniz said.

Exactly what the study and ensuing “roadmap” ultimately mean for the industry remains to be seen, though a similar DOE project undertaken for the wind sector should give those in the hydro sector hope for the future.

Released after an industry-wide fact gathering initiative much like Hydropower Vision, DOE released its “20% Wind Energy by 2030” report in 2008 that, as implied by its name, not only called for a dramatic increase in land-based and offshore wind power, but also provided a tangible plan and quantifiable, economic basis for achieving that goal.

According to the department, America’s windpower fleet went from basically non-existent in 2000 to generating more than 60,000 MW in 2012 — a figure that, based on my very imprecise eyeballing of a DOE-provided chart, looks to have already exceeded projections by a significant amount.

Already established as America’s leading source of renewable energy, hydroelectricity’s foothold is, obviously, much stronger than wind — or solar, geothermal and biomass, for that matter — but that isn’t to say there isn’t still significant room to grow.

And with legislation at both the state and federal levels making hydropower more of an emphasis now than ever before, there’s no reason to think it won’t.

To summarize then, like Rogers, all I know is what I read in the papers. Or, perhaps, what I write in the papers.

Those who follow the blog might recall I wrote about a renewed sense of optimism within the industry following the NHA’s conference last year, and indeed, it seems to have carried over this year as well.

With legislation now firmly in place and federal initiatives aimed at growing American hydropower even more, it’s an exciting time for the sector.

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for

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