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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Malcolm Woolf of National Hydropower Association

Many of us only think about electricity when the lights are out or the air conditioning isn’t working. And even then, we don’t always understand the intricacies of how power is generated and transmitted to our homes. This month, we’re pleased to welcome an energy expert who understands that all too well. He works in an industry that advocates for a seemingly simple source of power – running water – but that has its own share of communications and policy challenges. His name is Malcolm Woolf and he is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Hydropower Association (NHA).

Malcolm just celebrated his first year at the helm of NHA. Prior to that, he was Senior Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs for Advanced Energy Economy, where he worked with companies and organizations identifying and promoting solutions for America’s evolving energy industry. Earlier, he was director of the Maryland Energy Office in Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration and director of the Natural Resources Committee for the National Governors Association. He began his career at two law firms, before becoming Senior Counsel for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and then Senior Counsel for the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Malcolm’s experience and connections have put him in the middle of many of the most significant energy and environmental policy conversations of the past two+ decades. We’ve only interacted with Malcolm a few times over the years, but we’ve always found him to be smart and focused. We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from his experiences by including him as the 30th (!) participant in the Common Sense Colloquy series.

Our thanks to Malcolm for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.

Q: Hydropower is both one of the oldest and one of the most established of the renewable energy technologies, yet it is one of the least recognized at a time when newer technology seems to take the spotlight. Why do you think that is the case? What is NHA doing to make hydropower more recognized for the important role it plays in the nation’s energy system?

A: Hydropower is “America’s first renewable resource.” As the largest renewable energy generator in North America, hydropower in all its forms (reservoir hydro, run of river hydro, pumped storage and marine energy) provides reliable, secure, affordable, carbon-free electricity to approximately 30 million Americans.

Yet ironically, because hydropower has been dependable for so long, it is often overlooked. At the same time, hydropower doesn’t fit neatly into the current energy policy buckets. Virtually all hydropower facilities are multi-purpose; they generate carbon-free, dispatchable electricity and also provide flood control, water storage, irrigation and/or recreation. As such, hydropower investments are better viewed as long duration infrastructure assets (with many generating clean energy and other public benefits after more than a hundred years) than a typical power plant.

The industry is working hard to raise its profile. We have found ready allies across the political spectrum. Groups focused on grid security and reliability like that hydro is a secure, baseload resource, climate focused groups appreciate hydropower’s carbon-free generation, and grid operators appreciate that hydro can help balance the variable output from wind and solar. We are about to celebrate our National Hydropower Day, August 24th, to raise awareness of benefits of hydro in communities across the US – so learn more and watch the activities live at

Q: Do you think communicating about the role of renewable energies in the nation’s energy system has become easier with the growth of the industry in the past decade? Where do you think the industry is going? What will the communications challenges and opportunities of the future be for hydropower?

A: The future of hydropower is promising for two reasons. First, hydropower is increasingly understood to be an essential part of a climate solution. In addition to the 100 GW of carbon-free generation that is currently provides, hydropower and pumped storage are force multipliers due to their ability to balance variable wind and solar generation.

Second, as the 21st century grid evolves, generators and grid operators are putting a premium on flexibility and reliability, and that’s precisely what hydropower provides. In fact, over 90% of energy storage in the United States today comes from hydropower and pumped storage, including virtually all long-duration storage.

Hydropower’s challenge is to communicate that the technology can contribute even more carbon free generation to the grid – without new dams. Red Rock Hydropower Project in Iowa, which has its dedication ceremony in just a few weeks, is a perfect example. The facility will provide 36 megawatts (MW) of new electricity generation using the existing Red Rock dam on the Des Moines River. Employing 150-200 workers at the peak of construction, the facility will generate affordable, clean electricity to power approximately 18,000 homes.

And the Red Rock facility is not the exception. Few people realize that only 3% of existing dams have power generation. With over 90,000 existing dams in the United States and less than 2,500 hydropower facilities, the potential for hydropower to contribute even more to the nation’s decarbonization efforts has truly not been tapped.

Q: Your professional background is impressive: you have both a Master’s Degree and a law degree and you’ve been a congressional staffer, an EPA official, a state cabinet official and a senior executive at an advocacy organization. What have these experiences taught you and how have you applied the lessons you’ve learned to your job leading the nation’s hydropower industry trade association?

A: There is truth in the DC beltway adage - “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” Policy makers can only solve the problems they are aware of. Also, you need friends. Finding common ground and building broad based coalitions is the most effective way to advance an industry’s agenda.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?

A: Keep it simple. Resist the urge to discuss the intricate details of policy proposals or the latest grid technology. After all, most folks just want the lights to come on when they flip the switch and to know that their power is clean. Hydropower has been doing it for over a century, and we’re focused on expanding our reach to ensure that message is received far and wide.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?

A: Tell stories. Make them human and relatable. While facts and figures are important, stories resonate. Given that hydropower enriches our communities in more ways than you think, we’re working to tell stories that everyone can relate to. For example, in Washington, Seattle City Light spearheaded a project to remove Mill Pond Dam, which was no longer serving a useful propose, and restore six miles of the Sullivan Creek channel to help protect the future of native fish, including the threatened Bull Trout and native Westslope Cutthroat Trout. Telling stories helps communicate the essential role hydropower plays in communities across the nation.



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