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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Small Hydro "Green Energy" in the North Cascades

Finding sources of green energy is only one effort that faces us in our effort to save the planet as we know it, and I am personally committed to helping the process. The idea of small hydro can work to help our overall goal, along with solar, conservation, and possibly tidal, geo-thermal and other concepts being researched. I personally support small hydro on the condition that it does not disturb otherwise valuable resources such as fisheries, wilderness, wildlife, reasonable forestry, and the like.

In the case of the North Cascades, small hydro projects have the potential to disrupt existing ecosystems for the following reasons:

• The extensions or upgrade of roads into forested and/or roadless areas.
• Construction of power lines typically require clear-cutting a corridor to route the power to consumers.
• In cases with low head, higher volume, small dams or weirs are necessary to provide intake structures and storage for the generation facilities themselves.
• When regulating water levels in the streams it is difficult to replicate nature to the extent that fisheries will not be affected.
• There is the potential to block recreational access to stretches of the affected streams in order to protect the facilities and the public.
• Wildlife is always impacted by construction and maintenance activities as well as from displacement caused by habitat loss.
• Other multiple-use options such as forestry, and recreation, etc., are possibly ruled out by a single use of an area.
• By definition, small hydro tends to be somewhat uneconomic because the economy of scale is just not there.

In other words, it takes quite a lot of environmental and fiscal capital to produce very little in return. As a result, the economic justifications are difficult to honestly make in many cases. Having said all this, I would certainly support small-scale projects in some areas, particularly where development is already a fact.

Personally I do not think it makes much sense to build electrical facilities in the backcountry, far from electrical load centers and that have a lot of environmental questions difficult to answer. The proposals in the North Cascades tend to look good in some cases because land seems to be “free” since it is in public ownership and there tends to be a lot of water with high-energy availability (high head). Unfortunately, it is easy to overlook wilderness, fisheries, and wildlife. There are locations where small-scale hydro projects make sense. They tend to be where there are small loads in the vicinity of high head-low water volume sources or are close to developed areas. A good example of this, I think, are the communities in Stehekin and Holden Village. The NCCC, along with other river protection groups, will continue to keep investigating small hydro proposals.

-Marc Bardsley, President, NCCC
From the Spring 2010 issue of The Wild Cascades

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