The abundance of hydropower is essential to the economy and the way of life of the Pacific Northwest. The world’s original source of renewable energy has become even more important in delivering affordable and reliable energy to homes and cities across the region while keeping our carbon footprint low, and there’s even more we can do with this critical resource to help the planet and create family-wage jobs for U.S. workers.
Let’s start with the basics. Hydropower already enjoys a symbiotic relationship with its fellow renewables. Hydroelectric dams act like giant, clean energy batteries, storing energy in the form of water and then releasing the stored water past hydroelectric turbines when needed. This characteristic makes it possible to add intermittent renewables – primarily wind and solar – to the grid much more safely and affordably. In other words, you don’t have to worry about the lights turning on when it’s a cloudy and calm day, because hydropower has the capabilities to operate on-demand.
But hydropower can play another, equally important role in the development of other renewables by providing the low-cost and clean power needed to manufacture solar panels. China dominates the global solar panel manufacturing market. As a recent Wall Street Journal article explains, the prevalence of coal-burning power plants in China means it can take many years for solar panels to offset the carbon footprint resulting from their creation. Because solar cell manufacturing is incredibly energy intensive, if the energy used to make solar panels comes from carbon-heavy sources, it diminishes the environmental benefits of solar power.
Bringing solar manufacturing stateside – and to parts of the country already producing large amounts of renewable energy – is vital for solar power to live up to its promise of a carbon-free energy source. It also allows our skilled manufacturing labor force to participate in the upside of a clean energy revolution. Change can start at home, and solar developers – and their future customers – should commit to ensuring the energy used to make solar panels is as carbon-free as the energy they produce.
Bringing manufacturing home can be a key element in a virtuous circle, with benefits extending beyond the environment and the jobs it would create in America. For example, Voith Hydro is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of hydropower turbines, generators and automation technology. It is also the only company with a U.S. manufacturing presence capable of supplying the equipment needed to power dams of any size. Indeed, many of the turbines installed in dams in the Columbia River Basin are made by skilled, union workers in York, Pennsylvania.
These two industries – manufacturing and energy generation – are dependent on each other to ensure workforce stability. It is those union jobs and the workers that come up through registered apprenticeship programs that go on to build, construct and operate manufacturing plants, along with maintaining our hydro generation industry. It is this highly skilled workforce that provides family wage jobs, a pathway to the middle class, and retirement with dignity. By bringing these manufacturing jobs home, developing our workforce, and creating a renewable future, we can have our cake and eat it, too.
Yet much like solar manufacturing, the climate change benefits from hydropower investment are diminished when the equipment is produced overseas. This is often the case when these nearly century-old dams need upgrades. It’s even more concerning when it’s ultimately the federal government – which operates approximately half of the installed hydropower capacity in the country – spurns domestically produced equipment in favor of foreign-made turbines and generators. “Buy American” is important for hydropower as well.
Fortunately, President Biden has made some important modifications to Buy American enforcement. The recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill contains several important Buy American provisions that pertain specifically to government-backed infrastructure projects, but it is just a start. More needs to be done on both the public and private front.
Supporters of Pacific Northwest hydropower welcome the addition of other renewables to our energy mix. Indeed, no single source of energy will be enough to meet our future needs. We have a limited window, however, to bring together labor, manufacturing and environmental groups in support of something that could truly change the trajectory of our planet. That should start with manufacturing the renewable energy equipment here in the United States, with workers in America. Let’s hope we don’t squander this important opportunity.
Christine Reid is the political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77. Stanley J. Kocon is president and CEO of Voith Hydro Inc., based in York, Pennsylvania, and has worked in the hydropower industry for over 30 years. Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners – a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower for a better Northwest.
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