WASHINGTON — Oregon’s rivers and streams hold more than 4 gigawatts of potential renewable energy, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Energy.
But extensive permitting requirements and environmental concerns could hinder development of hydropower projects on such waterways.
The report focused on smaller sites that have not yet been developed and concluded that more than 65 gigawatts of potential exists in rivers and streams nationwide. A 2012 Department of Energy report found an additional 12 gigawatts of untapped potential in the 80,000 dams across the country that are not already generating hydropower.
A gigawatt is a large amount of power, a measurement often used in reference to large-scale power plants. One GW could power 700,000 homes or more.
Some of the highest hydropower potential in the Pacific Northwest is found in Central Oregon, predominantly in the Deschutes River, according to the report. The region boasts sizable changes in elevation and significant flows during certain parts of the year.
“The United States has tremendous untapped clean energy resources, and responsible development will help pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable and diverse energy portfolio,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a prepared statement. “As the Energy Department works with industry, universities and state and local governments to advance innovative hydropower technologies, the resource assessment released today provides unparalleled insight into new hydropower opportunities throughout the country.”
The report only envisions “run of river” sites where the natural flow of water is maintained, so that the same amount of water is released as is captured and harnessed.
The extensive permitting requirements to address existing environmental protections make many of the sites contemplated by the report significantly less attractive for development, said Jed Jorgensen, senior renewable energy project manager at Energy Trust of Oregon, a Portland-based nonprofit that promotes renewable energy.
“I don’t think very many of the sites that they identify in that report could be developed under the current policies that exist in our region,” he said. “The potential is there, but it would take substantial changes in society’s views about environmental concerns about hydro to get them to be developed.”
In many cases, it’s easier for irrigation districts to develop hydropower projects in existing canals or by enclosing pipes, he said. With streams and rivers, there must be proper screening and passage to protect fish.
“Those projects are much easier to permit than working with a natural stream,” he said.
Jorgensen pointed to the Central Oregon Irrigation District’s recent development of two hydropower projects, including the $24 million, 5-megawatt facility at Juniper Ridge, as an example of how irrigation district projects provide benefits for the local community.
In addition to the renewable energy generated, in most cases the revenues go back into the district, which can reinvest in more hydropower projects, he said. With more piping, there is less evaporation and leakage, so the community also has more water available.
This makes irrigators and others who rely on the water “more resilient against changing weather plans,” he said.
When flows run through pipes, irrigation districts can also benefit from the resulting water pressure, said rancher Bob Borlen, who is a board member of the Central Oregon Irrigation District. The pressure allows irrigators to reduce the energy they expend pumping water onto crops, he said.
“That leaves more power in the grid,” he said.
Borlen agrees with the Department of Energy’s study that there is more potential hydropower in Oregon, but shares Jorgensen’s concerns about the viability of some of the small-scale projects.
One potential benefit of smaller projects is that they could connect to the power grid through distribution lines instead of requiring the installation of additional transmission lines, he said.
“When we put in Juniper Ridge north of town, just the connection (cost) to the substation was $1.6 million,” he said.
Oregon already ranks second in the nation in hydropower generation, trailing only Washington state, according to the Energy Information Administration. In 2013, 70 percent of the electricity generated in Oregon was through hydropower. Thanks in part to abundant hydropower resources, Oregonians pay residential electricity costs below the national average, according to the agency.
The lack of precipitation has reduced hydropower output in Oregon as well as nationwide. In February 2013, Oregon generated 2,721 megawatt-hours via hydropower, versus 2,435 megawatt-hours in February 2014, a decrease of 10.5 percent, according to the agency’s figures.
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