Hydropowering the West

This display at the Estes Power Plant depicts water flowing from the Continental Divide to power plants and pumping stations that are a part of producing electricity.

Wind and solar power projects often grab today’s sustainable energy headlines, but for more than 100 years another source of clean, renewable electricity has quietly and reliably gone about its business with little fanfare. While wind breezes through life and solar has its day in the sun, water is busy working to keep the lights on 24/7.

“Hydropower electricity is important to this country,” Bureau of Reclamation Public Information Officer Kara Lamb says.  “Frankly, it would be nearly impossible for the West to survive without it.”

Hydropower’s benefits are twofold for the country, according to Lamb:

1) It is renewable and not a source of regulated emissions;

2) It can provide extra power during times of heavy use, like in the morning when more people are home.

Wires and transformers outside the Estes Power Plant that capture and transmit electricity on the interconnected system of power lines called the “grid.”

In 1902, the U.S. Congress passed the Reclamation Act, funding irrigation projects for arid lands in 17 western states, and established the Bureau of Reclamation to develop and conserve the nation’s water resources throughout the West. Between the Great Depression and World War II, the Bureau of Reclamation built some of the 20th Century’s greatest construction achievements, including the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, providing water to the West’s growing population of farmers and homesteaders.  

Photo of the Estes Power Plant from the late 1940s.

Today, the Bureau of Reclamation operates 53 power plants and more than 300 reservoirs. Hydropower supplies 7 percent of the country’s electricity, with the capacity to power up to 96 million homes.

Map of hydroelectric power plants in the United States.

In the United States, hydropower – a renewable source of energy – can provide low-cost electricity and helps reduce carbon emissions, according to Taylor Hawes, Nature Conservancy Colorado River Program Director.

Inside Estes Power Plant.

“If done right, it is a clean and renewable energy source that can play an important role in the country’s energy independence strategy,” Hawes said.

According to Hawes, the Bureau of Reclamation has made great strides over the last decade to mitigate environmental impacts and consider environmental needs. The Bureau of Reclamation’s responsibilities now include water quality improvement, flood control and water flows, fish and wildlife enhancement and habitat migration, and water-related research.

Hydroelectric power is still largely untapped – globally it could produce three times its current levels – and the U.S. has made it a priority of the clean energy frontier. By capitalizing on water power’s significant potential for sustainable growth, the U.S. could add thousands of clean energy jobs while building a sustainable, renewable energy future.