Hydroelectric Dams – Build them Up, Or Tear Them Down?

        How times change. It wasn’t all that long ago that building dams for irrigation, flood control and power generation was all  the rage. You can check it out by reading Marc Reisner’s book CADILLAC DESERT (1993). It’s not that we necessarily agree with Reisner’s views, but his book does provide a good overview of the history of American dam building which was all the rage, starting at the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

        As far as the law of eminent domain is concerned it was a case of land condemnation for a dam, United States ex rel. TVA v. Powelson, 319 U.S. 266 (1943) that provided the context in which the U.S. Supreme Court uttered its shibboleth that the law of eminent domain is compounded of the principle of indemnity and the people’s right in public projects. As it happened, Powelson proved to be probably the single most inappropriate case for such a statement. Why? Because, far from suffering the expense that would put the creation of public projects at risk if condemnees were to be indemnified for all their economic losses, the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, made a killing from its dams.

        In her book CITIES AND THE WEALTH OF NATIONS (1984) Jane Jacobs describes how by using hydroelectric dams, the TVA was able to generate cheap electrical power at a 50% cost advantage over its competitors. The cheap electricity attracted industry to the area, so that before long the generating capacity of TVA’s hydroelectric dams was exhausted, so the TVA built coal-fired power plants that still had a 30% cost advantage over its competition. Thus TVA became the largest power generator, making oodles of money, so that the court’s concern that there was tension between indemnifying the people whose land was taken for those dams and the people’s interest in public projects, proved to be simply absurd. TVA and its customers made a killing, and in that context the prices it paid for the land it condemned for those dams were a proverbial steal.

        But that isn’t the end of the story. The creation of those large, coal-fired power plants inspired extensive strip mining of coal in Kentucky and West Virginia, causing serious environmental degradation. As Jacobs puts it, “The scale and ruthlessness of strip mining were fully in keeping with the prodigious power production that the coal fed. Topsoil and forests were ravaged, valleys choked with debris. Floods grew in fury, compounding the damage.” All this was no public benefit to the people of the region, even if it created a windfall to TVA and to the industry that got to enjoy all that cheap power.

         Even the promised “just compensation” could be illusory. We learn from a recent New York Times article (Felicity Barringer, Decades Later. Simmering Debate on Road Heats Up, N.Y. Times, Feb. 21, 2008, at p. A12) that the TVA took hundreds of acres of rural land in North Carolina in the 1940s and promised to build a new county road to replace the road that was permanently flooded by one of its dams, but it failed to deliver on that promise.

         Now we learn that, according to our betters, all that past dam building frenzy was all wrong. Environmentalists now want dams to be torn down, and believe it or not, some of them are getting their way. The redoubtable Felicity Barrnger informs us in another, more recent, article that agreement has been reached to tear down four dams in the Pacific Northwest (Pact Would Open River, Removing Four Dams, N.Y. Times, Nov. 14, 2008, at p. A18). Why? Because the fish don’t like them. The more important question is why would the power companies that are selling the electrical power generated by those dams agree to tear them down? Answer: bureaucratic blackmail. “For the [power] company, the alternative to removing the dams would be renewing its long-term license, which would have required it to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new systems and structures to mitigate the impact on salmon.” (Ibid). In plain English, those dams have to go to please the fish, so keeping them in operation has been made too costly by the onerous bureaucratic burdens imposed on the power company via the license renewal process. So much for the people who rely on those dams for irrigation and power.

        So if you want an insight into how crazy those who govern us can be, here it is: on the one hand, every politician out there is forever yammering about the need to increase our domestic energy supplies and to protect the environment, lest global warming do us in if we keep emitting carbon dioxide. But on the other hand, there they are, insisting that hydroelectric dams that provide the cleanest and cheapest energy and irrigation, to say nothing of flood control, be torn down.

         Welcome to the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

INTERESTING UPDATE. While perusing the November 30, 2008, issue of New York Times Magazine, we came across a slick, full-page ad by Shell (inside the back cover), bragging about “tackling climate change and providing fuel for growing population.” It specifically mentions coal gassification, gas liquefaction, wind power, hydrogen fuels, fuel from algae, fuel from straw, and fuel from woodchips. But no mention of hydroelectric power. Odd, don’t you think? Why wind power, but no hydroelectric power?