By Jenny Neyman
The Low-Impact Hydropower Institute was formed as a nonprofit organization in 1999 to reduce negative impacts of hydroelectric facilities by offering marketing incentives to hydro projects that don’t damage the environment.
American Rivers, a nonprofit river conservation organization, launched the institute, which is supported by a variety of conservation, renewable energy and public interest organizations — including Trout Unlimited, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Resource Solutions.
Its governing board, which ultimately bestows or denies low-impact status, is made up of noted experts in the environmental field, said Fred Ayer, executive director. The governing board is advised by members of the institute’s Hydropower Industry Advisory Panel, Renewable Advisory Panel and a natural resources technical adviser. Again, all are respected in their fields, Ayer said.
When Ayer took the job of executive director in 2003, he said one of his first priorities after reading the organization’s bylaws was to diversify the governing board to include industry representatives, as well as environmentalists. To his surprise, the idea was shot down by people in the hydropower industry, he said.
“I talked to people who had projects certified and they said, ‘We want no part of that,’” Ayer said. “They don’t want a situation where it’s nothing more than a beauty pageant with industry folks tapping people on the head and saying it’s a good project. The value is certification comes from environmental leaders.”
For its first few years the institute operated on foundation money. The first application was processed in 2001, and now the application and recertification fees pay for the institute to operate. Ayer said they’ve put a lot of thought into fee amounts.
“Close to 25 projects that had been certified were surveyed and asked if they got the value they expected. What we found out to our delight is it had been priced appropriately and they had more than made back what they invested. So it worked for them and worked for us,” Ayer said.
The institute uses the same eight criteria to evaluate all its applicants: water quality, fish passage and protection, watershed protection, threatened and endangered species protection, cultural resource protection, recreation, and facilities recommended for removal. The size and power output of applicant facilities isn’t as big a factor as its impact.
“You could have small projects that were environmentally damaging or you could have big projects that aren’t. Conversely, you could have big projects that sit lightly on the land and vice versa. We tend to look at environmental criteria,” Ayer said.
The organization isn’t opposed to hydropower projects, nor it is always in favor of them, Ayer said. He said they’re just out to make the projects as environmentally responsible as they can be.
“It sort of takes away the stereotype that says all hydro is bad. Another side says all hydro is good. I think probably 90 percent of us appreciate the fact that there’s some good hydro and bad hydro, and it’s not that bad hydro was built by bad people, it could just be the standards in place at that time. I like the strategy of looking at projects individually.”
For more information on the Low-Impact Hydropower Institute, visit its Web site, http://lowimpacthydro.org.