The US has many diverse sources of energy including solar panels, wind turbines, and petroleum. One resource, however, remains largely untapped: hydro energy.

In other countries, hydro power is a staple of energy production. In the United States, hydro power is not an important element of the power matrix. In 2016, hydro capacity equipment only made up 7% of the total energy capacity. The capacity has only increased by roughly 200 MW a year. Clearly this resource is not a priority. Why is this?

Lack of Awareness

One main reason for the lack of hydro capacity equipment is a lack of awareness. People may believe that because there are already so many dams in the U.S. that the sector has already been tapped. While there are already many dams, 90% of them are not used to produce electricity! This means that there are 80,000 existing dams that could be fitted with hydropower plants. This has the potential to increase the United States’ power by 12 GW by adding to already-existing infrastructure.

Crumbling Infrastructure

Unfortunately a lack of awareness isn’t the only problem. The solution isn’t as simple as adding the capacity to produce electricity. U.S. dam infrastructure is in critical condition. 2,000 high hazard dams are in need of repair. Dams require consistent upkeep as the age. This is a growing issue, as 70% of dams will reach 50 years old by 2020.

Warnings in Other Countries

Another issue is the negative outcomes of dams in other countries. For example, dams have led to pollution and damage to ecosystems in South America. According to a data analysis of the risks associated with different energy sources, hydropower causes more deaths than nuclear power and natural gas. However, it is still safer than coal.

Advocates for dams argue that most deaths and pollution happen in countries without the safety standards and track record of the United States. The U.S. has higher health and safety standards, which may lead to less incidents.

Hydropower has major potential, but tapping into this source of energy comes with many challenges. In order to harness dams, dam infrastructure will have to undergo costly repairs. Then these dams will need to be equipped with technology so they can produce electricity. Even after these efforts, other dangers remain as demonstrated by dams in foreign countries. Dams present a great opportunity to bolster our energy production, but we can’t completely rely on them.