Thoughts on Obama’s Climate Change memorandum

It’s apparent that President Barack Obama’s new climate change plan could potentially have a significant and lasting impact on renewable energy production, but exactly what that means for the hydropower industry is about as clear as silt.

The President’s Climate Action Plan, unveiled yesterday at Georgetown University, is an executive directive designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at America’s new and existing power plants.

The landmark proposal builds on Obama’s 2009 commitment to reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, though the United States — unlike a growing number of other countries — has yet to adopt a federally mandated standard for power plant carbon pollution.

And though reducing emissions at fossil-fueled plants is clearly the largest focus of the plan, the memorandum notes that augmenting or replacing those sources with renewable ones will be an important part of achieving that goal.

The crux in any discussion of “renewable” as it pertains to matters of energy policy, however, is whether hydropower is included in that definition or not.

Fortunately in this instance, hydroelectricity is — though how it figures into the plan isn’t entirely clear.

So, just a few initial reactions to Obama’s memorandum, which is available via the White House here:                                                                                                       

  1. Though the document includes sections titled “Promoting American Leadership in Renewable Energy” and “Unlocking Long-Term Investment in Clean Energy Innovation”, the plan seems more concerned with capping emissions from existing and new fossil fuel plants than pushing an all-out transition to green sources. To be sure, they’re baby steps in the right direction, but I can’t help but think there could have been more of an emphasis on cultivating newer, cleaner resources rather than slapping some regulations on the polluting fleet we already have.
  2. Hydropower is included in the plan, though it seems to take a backseat to solar, wind and geothermal sources. And though I know a variety of energy sources are necessary in maintaining a modern, stable grid, it seems curious to me that a commodity so proven and relatively cheap as hydroelectric power wouldn’t be front and center in any discussion about renewable development.
  3. The memorandum’s one concrete mention of hydropower — that is, encouraging the development of hydroelectric power at existing dams — hits the proverbial nail on the head and seems like a complete no-brainer. Whether many of the pieces of legislation currently making their way through the Senate are a reflection of that realization or vice-versa, point is that there are thousands of existing, unutilized infrastructure points on federal lands that could be converted to produce hydroelectricity.
  4. It’s interesting to me that the document mentions a Department of Defense (which is, according to the memorandum, the largest consumer of energy in the U.S.) plan to deploy 3 GW of renewable energy on military installations by 2025. Though this plan includes solar, wind, biomass and geothermal sources, it omits hydro. My assumption is that as forms of distributed generation, they’re more conducive to localized use than hydropower — but still. I’m surprised there’s no opportunities for Department of Defense hydropower usage somewhere.

The memorandum’s reception around the industry seems to be generally positive, as it should be. After all, the mere fact that hydropower is being included amongst other renewables should be considered a victory for the industry.

But as always, I’m interested to hear what others think. So, what do you think?

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for

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