Published on August 20th, 2014 | by Rocky Mountain Institute


Why Other Renewables Are Surpassing Hydro

August 20th, 2014 by  

Rocky Mountain Institute.
By Laurie Guevara-​Stone.

2014 is predicted to be the first year in history that non-hydro renewable generation exceeds hydropower generation in the United States. This is a big change—only a decade ago hydropower produced three times as much electricity in the U.S. as the combined contributions of non-hydro sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released data showing that this past April marked the eighth consecutive month that non-hydropower surpassed hydro. In April solar, wind, and other non-hydro renewables made up 7.4 percent of all U.S. generation, while hydropower made up 7 percent of the total, according to the EIA’s Electric Power Monthly. With non-hydro renewables’ continued cost decline, their growing investment and annual capacity additions, along with a decline in the growth of hydropower, that gap is predicted to continue to grow. The EIA predicts that non-hydro renewables will provide more than twice as much generation as hydropower by 2040. The following four reasons explain why non-hydro renewables are surging ahead.


Much of the growth of non-renewable hydro generation can be attributed to declining costs. Utility scale PV prices have dropped from $3.90 per watt in 2009 to $1.85 per watt in 2014. And residential PV system prices are 28 percent less than they were only three years ago. Wind power has seen a huge drop in cost. The cost of generating electricity from wind has fallen by more than 40 percent over the past three years.


There are various reasons why hydropower generation is shrinking in the United States. California, which has long been one of the country’s hydro leaders with more than 300 dams, is facing a record drought that has lead to a dramatic decline in production from hydropower. Hydro went from providing 14 percent of California’s electricity mix for the past three decades to only 9 percent in 2013, whereas wind and solar power in the state, which provided 2 and 0.3 percent of the state’s electricity over the past decade, jumped to 5.2 and 1.5 percent in 2013 respectively. Drought is threatening to close hydro power stations in other states as well, such as Texas and Nevada.


Another reason why hydropower generation is not growing is that many of the good hydropower locations are already developed. While some renewable resources can be tapped in much of the country, the available number of potential hydropower dam sites is limited by geography, and in the United States, the most viable sites have already been developed or are off limits due to environmental concerns. In fact, while hydropower generation has remained mostly steady over the past decade, wind generation grew over 1000 percent over that same period.


The EIA study only looked at electricity generation sources larger than 1 megawatt. RMI’s Reinventing Fire Transform vision for the U.S. electricity sector includes 80 percent renewable energy by 2050, fully half of it from smaller, distributed renewables such as solar PV on the rooftops of homes and small businesses … exactly the kind of small, non-hydro renewables not captured in the EIA forecast and which RMI co-founder and chief scientist Amory Lovins frequently notes are scaling faster than cell phones. In the first quarter of 2014, 457 megawatts of non-utility PV were installed in the U.S., meaning the gap between hydro and non-hydro renewables may be even larger than stated.

While in the country as a whole non-hydro renewables are surpassing hydro, if you take a state-by-state look, the picture isn’t the same. In the Pacific Northwest and New York hydropower still out produces other renewables, but in California, Texas, and some Midwest states, wind and solar are playing a much bigger role. And over the past ten years the number of states for which non-hydro renewable generation exceeded hydropower generation nearly doubled from 17 to 33. The EIA forecast, which some claim is conservative, predicts non-hydro renewables growing on average at about 3.2 percent per year through 2040. And if all the smaller residential and commercial systems were added in, the picture might be even brighter for non-hydro renewables.

Graph courtesy of Energy Information Administration.

Source: Rocky Mountain Institute. Reproduced with permission.

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About the Author

Since 1982, Rocky Mountain Institute has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit for more information.

  • spec9

    There are some hydropower locations that could be exploited. I’d like to see more hydropower systems.

  • JamesWimberley

    The same trend applies globally. China and Brazil are still rolling out megadams, but the sites are getting harder to find, less productive, and more damaging environmentally per gw. Brazil’s Belo Monte may well be the last megadam in the Amazon. Many of us certainly hope so.

  • Much of hydro power was a result of government/development planning, be it agriculture, the Rural Electrification of America, depression era jobs creation programs, “built it and they will come” ploys etc. Many of the dams have become too expensive to maintain. Many were built with federal dollars with operations and maintenance costs the responsibility of local authorities and states. Razing dams throughout the US is becoming big business for engineering and construction firms. Some folks are blaming environmentalists and various wildlife protective measures. It really is just cost. Dams cause reservoirs to silt up. That requires dredging. Dredge material could be nasty if there was industry. Many of the structures are earthen, concrete or roller compacted concrete (a local soil and cement mix) and really expensive to repair.

    As the author said, the problem is drought. Hydro capacity is all about water level height. More height, more power. Here’s an interesting website on all of California’s major reservoirs, of which most have generation capabilities:

    It’s bad. Here’s Colorado River:

    Not too good. And Texas:

  • Fact

    The state of new york as a long way to go to surpass hydro due to the fact that niagara falls is the first ever hydro plant and likely one of the largest still. Because of this, the RPS of the Empire State is a bit under what the state should be aiming for in terms of real changes to the energy supply base.

    • Matt

      Doesn’t NY also have a big pumped Hydro just down river from the falls? Using the height difference between the river below and the cliff above. Which gives the niagara plant a big battery. Not knowing what treaties exist for flow amount over the falls, bet they could double, or even a lot more, the niagara plant size without a visible impact on the flow over the falls.

      • Fact

        The pumped hydro is true, moreover because of hydro the falls themselves are usually running at half what they would naturally. further, between NY and ON there is the capability to stop the flow of water all together. this gives NY flexibility and leadership in renewable energy- but for reasons that are over 100 years old.

  • Matt

    You really shouldn’t use “EIA forecast” for renewables. They are only good at forecasting the past for renewables and then only for large scale systems.

    Hydro does have three areas of growth in the USA. (1)Upgrading equipment at existing plants, (2)Adding generation to smaller damns (low head), (3)Run of river projects.

    (1) Is easy, might even happen at least at plant not impacted by drought.
    (2) Doesn’t have the big works feel that drives Corps of Engineering; note that these damns along the Mississippi and all it feeders are big just not real tall. And the flow is massive. On the Ohio alone there are 10 navigation damns with a list of between 20-30 feet, plus 2 of almost 40 feet. Some nice images to see scale:;_ylt=A0LEViiAj_RTs0wA6BoPxQt.;_ylu=X3oDMTBsa3ZzMnBvBHNlYwNzYwRjb2xvA2JmMQR2dGlkAw–?_adv_prop=image&fr=yhs-ironsource-fullyhosted_003&va=Mississippi+river+navigation+dams&hspart=ironsource&hsimp=yhs-fullyhosted_003

    (3)Not sexy and have all the red tape of a big damn, since “no one” has done them yet. Yes I know “no one” is not turn but that is how it will feel for a while every time someone tries to get this type of project thru zoning to even try a polit project.

    What kill (1) and (2) is that they are based on federal funding, say no more. I also think they are planned to sell electric at below market prices; which hurt a ROI on the investment to upgrade.

    • Pumped storage may bring back hydro as well. Especially to dovetail with wind and solar in areas with at least elevation change (not Illinois). The run of the river projects seem really promising. These aren’t water projects per se, but electricity generation projects. Kind of cool. Plus they don’t block the natural course of a river. The problem with run of the river is drought. All good until that happens.

      Here’s a pumped storage plant built in Ludington, MI. Built about 40 years ago, right next to lake Michigan. It is only a battery or load leveler.

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