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In Our View: Electrifying Idea

Cantwell wants to increase hydropower; more than a million jobs could be created

The Columbian
Published: March 20, 2011, 12:00am

That do comedian Tim Allen and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell have in common? An abiding love for “More power!” For the comic, that’s the solution to every challenge that might arise in any home-improvement project. For the senator, boosting the Northwest’s hydropower capacity would be one of the most productive ways to accelerate a recovery from the lingering economic crisis.

She’s correct, of course, and what we like best about her Hydropower Improvement Act (introduced on Thursday) is that it takes a proven success — indeed, the pride of the Northwest — and makes it even better. And all of this would be accomplished without adding dams, just through upgrading current power-producing dams, bringing other dams online and enhancing conduit programs, pumped-storage facilities and other power sources. More than just a boost in power, the act would yield a significant increase in jobs. One study mentioned in Cantwell’s bill envisions the current national hydropower work force of 300,000 people bolstered by up to 1.4 million new jobs (direct and indirect) across the country.

Oh, but this proposal surely will become smothered in partisan bickering, you might argue. But consider the bipartisan thrust of the Hydropower Improvement Act. Cantwell chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy. Her primary co-sponsor on this bill is Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, ranking Republican on that same subcommittee. They are joined by seven other co-sponsors from both parties.

All nine sponsors are working across party lines because they know that hydropower is America’s largest source of clean, renewable energy, one that produces almost a third of the country’s energy. They also know that hydropower has stood the test of time with a track record of more than a century of generating affordable, emissions-free energy. Dams not only yield almost three-fourths of the energy consumed in our state, they also provide irrigation for Eastern Washington farms where apples, cherries, hops, wheat and other crops are grown.

Current hydropower production can be increased by upgrading turbines to produce more power with the same amount of water, and adding power-producing capacity at other dams. (About 97 percent of the nation’s 80,000 dams do not generate electricity.) Modern technology is pioneering other forms of hydropower beyond just dams, with programs that use conduit devices, hydrokinetics and what’s known as closed-loop pumped storage.

The Hydropower Improvement Act, if approved, would establish a competitive grants program and expand research and development programs with the Department of Energy.

Cantwell specified on Thursday how this measure would impact our region: “Emissions-free hydropower is the backbone of Washington’s economy, providing around three-quarters of our electricity, and keeping our rates among the lowest in the country. This bipartisan bill will help find ways to increase our nation’s hydropower capacity without building new dams, improving air quality while creating new clean energy jobs.” Another co-sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, said: “In addition to putting people to work, we can continue to broaden our alternative energy portfolio and move closer to ending our dependence on energy provided by foreign oil. This legislation is another step in the process.”

Many proposed solutions to the economic crisis deal with the traditional; others deal with the innovative. This measure embraces both: reliable, time-honored hydropower taken into the 21st century.

“More power!” makes sense, because America needs the renewable energy, and Americans need the jobs.