By Margaret Miner
We get many questions about our position on proposals to develop or import more hydropower. This is especially true in a year like 2013, when the governor, DEEP, and legislators were putting forward energy bills that included major roles for hydropower.
Our basic position is that we support “good,” that is, low-impact hydropower. The typical characteristics of good hydropower are that it is run-of-river (water is not impounded and then released only when convenient); that it does not require a new dam; and that it provides passage for fish and eels. The ultimate goal is that a new or enhanced hydropower project should provide overall improvement in the health of the river.
These characteristics are to a considerable extent embodied in Connecticut’s definition of Class I hydropower. In Connecticut, all electric utilities are required to have in their energy portfolios a certain percent of Class I energy sources, such as solar and wind. The goal has been 20 percent by 2020. In other words, by 2020, 20 percent of a utility’s portfolio should be Class I energy.
Connecticut’s definition of Class I hydro includes the good characteristics mentioned above. In particular, this year, with the help of Paul Mounds in the governor’s office, Jessie Stratton at DEEP, and Andrew Fisk at the Connecticut River Watershed Council, we achieved a marked improvement in the definition of Class I with respect to fish passage. But unfortunately, in a holdover from the original definition a decade ago, Class I hydropower is supposed to be small and new. Small is under 5 megawatts (mw) and new is post-July 2003. This makes little ecological sense. All things being equal, it is better to have one well-designed hydro plant producing 20 mw, than four dams producing perhaps only 4 mw—or even less.
The nature of a river is continuity—in biochemistry, physical flow, aquatic life, the birds, amphibians, and mammals that depend on the river for survival. Each natural change flows into another.
Rivers are the arteries of the world. Dams are high-risk tourniquets. Even a small dam can cut off that continuous life and degrade water quality (especially by warming the water and promoting harmful algae blooms and dead zones).
One of the surest ways to compensate for hydropower development by improving overall river health is to trade off removal of one or two existing dams for the hydropower on a third. This is feasible in many locations. There are 5,000 dams on Connecticut waterways. It is difficult to make an argument for building more. Nevertheless, a number of corporations, municipalities, and ordinary people who own riverside property, yearn for their very own new dams and hydropower facilities, and have proposals pending.
The Rivers Alliance view is that all hydropower in our state should eventually meet Class I standards, and certainly any new hydro should do so.
For this reason, we strongly opposed legislation this year that allows in some circumstances the sale of destructive Class II hydropower as if it were Class I in order to help utilities fill their Class I requirements. We have not opposed the incredibly massive hydropower facilities in Canada (although we think Canada will eventually regret them). We do not oppose increased importation of Class II hydropower from Canada. But we are extremely concerned about representing massively destructive hydropower as environmentally benign Class I energy.
Why do we care about lawmakers approving an apparently small stretching of the rules on behalf of Hydro Quebec? It is because we are certain that lawmakers and other officials will not be able to resist pleas and pressure to stretch those rules for Connecticut interests on Connecticut rivers. Why should only Canada be allowed to sell Class II hydro in the Class I market? Why shouldn’t Connecticut companies be allowed to do so? It’s hard to say why not. Therefore, we believe that to protect Connecticut rivers, we need to maintain high standards for what counts as Class I hydropower that can be used to fill the Class I portfolio requirements.
The bottom line is: We support low-impact hydropower. We oppose any additional destructive hydropower on Connecticut rivers.
Also, we’d be happy to answer questions and receive comments on the issue.
Rivers Alliance of Connecticut