Hydropower: The key to clean, more-affordable energy for Alaska

Since the days of the great Gold Rush, Alaskans have understood the importance of water in producing affordable and abundant energy. Indeed, the production of energy from water helped build our great state.

The owners of the A.J. Mine certainly appreciated the benefits of hydropower when they built the Salmon Creek dam and brought electricity to Juneau in 1913. Construction of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project in the 1930s spurred development and helped Anchorage become the state's biggest city. Today, nearly 30 hydroelectric projects across the state supply enough renewable power to meet 24 percent of Alaskans' energy needs.

Hydropower has provided the entire nation with affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy for more than 130 years. Hydropower currently delivers two-thirds of the nation's renewable energy supply. But despite its obvious benefits, hydropower is often overlooked in the clean energy debate.

Hydropower is not only the United States' largest source of renewable electricity generation, it's also carbon-free, baseload power responsible for reducing our domestic annual carbon emissions by 200 million metric tons. And because hydropower can be counted on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it makes adding intermittent sources, like solar and wind, easier for the grid to handle from a reliability standpoint.

As Alaska takes steps to diversify its energy portfolio and reduce the amount of coal and diesel fuel it burns, hydropower offers an abundant and cost-effective alternative that can be developed in an environmentally-sensitive manner. In fact, the state is well on its way to meeting its goal of getting 50 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025 thanks to investments made by earlier generations of Alaskans into hydroelectric projects.

From Bradley Lake near Homer to the state's smallest hydro project outside Ketchikan, harnessing the power of rain and snow, with an assist from gravity, generates the electricity that allows us to run our lights, power our refrigerators and charge our cell phones. And hydropower delivers that electricity at affordable prices. In communities in Southeast lucky enough to have access to hydroelectric generation, residents pay on average 10 cents a kilowatt hour, compared to roughly 60 cents for electricity in many other parts of the state.

Despite the prevalence of hydropower in Alaska and throughout the Lower 48, many people continue to believe it is yesterday's technology and that our hydropower resources are tapped out. But with just 3 percent of the country's 80,000 existing dams capable of generating electricity, the truth is that we haven't even begun to scratch the surface. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that more than 12 gigawatts -- the equivalent output of 12 nuclear power plants -- could be generated simply by installing turbines on existing dams.

In Alaska, there are some 200 sites where the power of water and gravity could be harnessed to generate clean, renewable electricity. A dozen projects are already under construction or in the planning stages, and another two dozen are in the process of moving from the drawing board to development.

And hydropower projects can be environmentally friendly. We all recognize that when developing hydropower projects it's crucial to choose locations that minimize any potential impact on fish populations. Alaska has a great track record over the past four decades of doing just that.

In an effort to promote hydropower and reduce the cost of developing such projects, I championed legislation streamlining the federal permitting and licensing review processes for certain types of projects, including pumped storage, conduits, small scale, and electrifying existing non-powered dams. Congress recently passed both of those hydro bills and sent them to the president for signing.

Expanding our use of hydroelectricity, whether it's from conventional dams or from marine hydrokinetic projects – harnessing the waves, currents, tides and temperature differentials in the ocean to generate electricity – simply makes sense for the nation and it makes sense for Alaska.

Lisa Murkowski is Alaska's senior representative in the U.S. Senate and the senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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