Not since Moses controlled the Red Sea for the benefit of the Israelites has water power had a good public relations person. That’s unfortunate, as hydroelectric power has vast potential to provide renewable, reliable, and controllable electricity throughout Iowa. It has not garnered the visibility that both wind and solar power have. Maybe that is because it’s not visible.
Wind turbines and solar panels are very hard to disguise, whether or not they are actually producing power. But they certainly have good public relations. For four months of the year the Iowa sky is dark and gloomy. Many people flee to Arizona or Florida, and others succumb to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Iowa State University estimates that as many as 20 percent of their students are affected with SAD each year. Yet the Iowa Environmental Council says that, with enough government support, Iowa can become the next solar energy hotspot. This might be a little difficult to sell to Iowans who are tired of grey, snow-filled days.
Wind turbines are the other favored children of the environmental movement. One certainly can’t miss them –– mostly motionless — protruding from our fields and prairies. There are articles almost every day about the latest wind “farm,” and about private-property-rights issues.
Hydroelectric power –– which is much more reliable and controllable than either solar or wind power, much less visible, and doesn’t require new transmission lines –– barely rates a mention.
There are 246 dams on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources 2010 River Dam Inventory. Of these, 18 are large impoundment dams, which have a height of at least 30 feet and a reservoir behind them, and 177 low-head dams. Most of the dams are owned by cities (77), the state (47), or counties (34), with some 28 being privately owned and 17 under federal control. Unfortunately, only seven dams, in Butler, Hardin, Iowa, Jackson, Jones, Linn, and Mitchell counties have hydroelectric energy systems. At least one more will be added by 2016 as a new hydroelectric facility is being built at Red Rock Dam in Marion County by Missouri River Energy Services (MRES), a consortium of 61 municipalities that own and operate power utilities.
MRES anticipates beginning construction on the 34-megawatt, $260 million project as soon as the weather breaks and power generation will begin in late 2016. Red Rock will provide electricity for 18,000 homes, and be the second largest hydroelectric plant in Iowa. The regulatory approval process took many years, yet adding electric turbines to an existing dam is really pretty simple. It involves drilling holes through the dam to insert the turbines. Once the turbines and generators are in place, the water runs through and creates electricity. This electricity can be stored and managed using established infrastructure. The water still exists and can be used for crops, fishing, boating, and drinking.
The onerous Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) approval process is why many proposed hydroelectric projects are never built. Hopefully this will change with the newly announced two-year licensing process. Under the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013, the FERC has developed a two-year pilot licensing process for existing non-powered dams (potentially 187 dams in Iowa alone) and in closed-loop pumped storage projects. Applications for pilot projects must be submitted by May 5, 2014.
Specifically these projects must “cause little to no change to existing surface and groundwater flows and uses, and must not adversely affect federally listed threatened and endangered species.” Given the historical operating mode of the FERC, proposed projects should probably cause “no change” if they are to be approved.
Additionally in 2013 the Iowa Legislature approved, and Governor Terry Branstad signed, a sales tax exemption for conversion materials used in the manufacture of hydroelectric facilities; for equipment such as generators and turbines, powerhouses, intakes, coffer dams, and electrical substations. House File 630 hasn’t received much public visibility, but has the potential to jumpstart the industry by saving thousands of dollars in construction costs.
MRES is considering three other Iowa projects: on the Des Moines River and on the Mississippi River at Dubuque and Davenport. The rivers and water at these dams are potentially able to produce hundreds of megawatts of low-cost, consistent, and highly renewable energy.
At a recent Congressional hearing the Director of the FERC Office of Energy Projects said, “There is a great deal of potential for the development of additional hydropower projects throughout the country, including small projects.” The Executive Director of the National Hydropower Association added, “We’re seeing a significant change in attitude,” and are “optimistic about new approvals,” by the FERC.
The FERC pilot projects and the Iowa Legislature’s removal of the state sales tax are excellent first steps. Both public- and private-sector dam owners from Iowa need to be at the head of the line by May 5 –– and hydroelectricity needs a good public relations person. Unfortunately, Moses is not available!
 Xin Xue, “Seasonal Affective Disorder Strikes in Wintertime,” Iowa State Daily News, December 6, 2011, <http://www.iowastatedaily.com/news/article_2175af2e-1bba-11e1-9cf3-001cc4c03286.html> accessed on February 10, 2014.
 Chelsea Keenan, “Iowa Environmental Council Releases Report Making Case for Solar Power,” The Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 30, 2014, <http://thegazette.com/2014/01/30/iowa-environmental-council-releases-report-making-case-for-solar-power/#ixzz2svDHjwLI> accessed on January 31, 2014.
 “2010 River Dam Inventory,” Iowa Department of Natural Resources, p. 18, <http://www.iowadnr.gov/portals/idnr/uploads/riverprograms/dam_chap2.pdf?amp;tabid=878> accessed on February 10, 2014.
 “MRES Awards Contract for Bike Trail Extension Near Red Rock Dam,” MREnergy.com, August 6, 2013, <http://www.mrenergy.com/news/> accessed on February 10, 2014.
 Barbara Vergetis Lundin, “FERC Seeks Hydro Pilot Projects,” January 9, 2014, FierceEnergy.com, <http://www.fierceenergy.com/story/ferc-seeks-hydro-pilot-projects/2014-01-09> accessed on February 10, 2014.
 “Notice Soliciting Pilot Projects to Test a Two-Year Licensing Process,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Docket No. AD13-9-000, January 6, 2014, <http://assets.fiercemarkets.com/public/sites/energy/reports/hydropilotreport.pdf> accessed on February 11, 2014.
 “House File 630,” Iowa State Legislature, <http://coolice.legis.iowa.gov/linc/85/external/govbills/HF630.pdf> accessed on February 11, 2014.
 David Pitt, “Hydroelectric Power Makes Big Comeback at U.S. Dams,” September 12, 2013, Associated Press, <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/hydroelectric-power-makes-big-comeback-us-dams> accessed on February 10, 2014.
 Travis Mitchell, “Hydropower Growth Slows, But Value Remains High,” FierceEnergy.com, May 21, 2013, <http://www.fierceenergy.com/story/hydropower-growth-slows-value-remains-high/2013-05-21#ixzz2svCCGlcM> accessed on February 10, 2014.
Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at Public.Interest.Institute@LimitedGovernment.org.