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Thinking Outside the Pipeline

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This January, United States lawmakers introduced legislation that would offset President Obama's recent efforts to postpone development of the contentious Keystone XL Pipeline. According to Louisiana Senator David Vitter, the proposed initiative has 44 co-sponsors, all of whom are hoping to initiate timely construction of the 1,661-mile pipeline.

While opponents insist that devastating environmental impacts are all but certain, proponents of the $7 billion Keystone Pipeline rally around the project's undeniable job-generating potential. Ironically, neither opponents nor advocates have entertained auxiliary projects that would reconcile both concerns.

In today's energy debate, "renewables" such as wind and solar power are often pitted against "conventional" sources, like coal and natural gas. Yet energy security and environmental impact are not mutually exclusive policy avenues. There is no compelling reason not to promote a diverse strategy to develop any and all sources of potential energy, using every viable tool available.

Keystone may appear to be one sound solution, as it aims to bridge the apparently irreconcilable gap between energy needs and environmental concerns. When it comes to both alternative energy sources and job creation, however, Keystone is neither the paramount nor singular solution.

The increasingly partisan climate renders lawmakers blind to alternatives that stand to reconcile all concerns ranging from environmental sustainability to job creation to national security. Enter: Hydroelectric power, from both stage left and right.

Hydropower has been a reliable economic stimulator and generator of jobs since the Great Depression era days of the Tennessee Valley Authority. While the Keystone XL pipeline would provide an estimated 138,000 jobs relegated almost entirely to the Midwest corridor, hydropower promises to produce diverse employment anywhere water flows, even in the Southeast, which is notoriously lacking in power generation.

With only 3 per cent of all existing dams in the U.S. electrified, hydropower has enormous development potential. More impressively, the National Hydropower Association claims it could double current hydropower output without implementing a single new dam. This plan to develop pre-existing dams is projected to add 1.4 million domestic jobs by 2025. Couple that with the utilization of well-established, affordable technology and low carbon emissions, hydropower inevitably emerges as one of the top competitors in the energy industry.

"Hydroelectric power is the backbone of America's renewable energy resources. It produces far more electric generation than any other renewable resource and has all the attributes our country is seeking for its clean energy future: Hydropower is available, reliable, affordable and sustainable," says David Moller, president of the National Hydropower Association.

Hydropower is nothing new; worldwide capacity and use have been mounting rapidly for the past decade, with an annual increase of 9.3 per cent domestically and 5.3 per cent worldwide between 2009 and 2010. Because hydro is so established, the industry has ample expertise in developing mitigation strategies to avoid environmental damage, particularly when developing new electricity projects on pre-existing dams.

John Seebach, Director of the Hydropower Reform Coalition at American Rivers affirms: "[You are] not ever going to have zero emissions or zero impact, but what you're looking for is responsible development...[hydropower] is environmentally viable and it can be responsibly developed."

Moller adds: "All that is needed to accomplish this growth is to pursue hydropower development with the same policies, incentives and commitment America is using to expand our wind and solar energy resources. The National Hydropower Association is working on both sides of the political isle and with the environmental community to make this happen.

To invest in hydropower now does not necessarily mean that our nation will be able to stop using oil or fossil-fuel based energies immediately. Nor does it mean that there may not be need for collaborative projects like Keystone in the future. But large-scale development of new and existing hydropower projects is currently available, and has the potential to generate needed energy while addressing environmentalist concerns about emissions related to fossil-fuel energy.

A majority of Americans agree that "the U.S. needs to be a clean energy technology leader and it should invest in the research and domestic manufacturing of wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies."

Given the undeniable environmental and economic benefits, compounded with overwhelming public support, it's difficult to understand why or how policy makers have failed to tap hydropower as an economical and sustainable path to energy security.