Survey Says: We Could Use More Hydroelectricity!

The debate over phasing out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy seems focused on wind and solar power as sustainable energy champions, and there’s no doubt they will be indispensable to our future energy mix. But what about developing more hydroelectricity?  Hydropower is too often overlooked when it comes to renewable electricity generation.  Luckily, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), alongside the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is bringing our country’s hydroelectricity potential back into the spotlight.

An April 2012 report done by the ORNL for the US DOE found that at least a dozen gigawatts (GW) of new hydroelectricity could be brought online without building a single new dam.  Existing dams that do not currently generate energy are referred to as non-powered dams, or NPDs, by the ORNL. This report explains, “Adding power to U.S. NPDs has the potential to add up to 12 GW (12,000 megawatts or MW) of new renewable capacity—a potential equivalent to increasing the size of the existing conventional hydropower fleet by 15%.”  While 15% of the United States’ existing hydropower capacity may not seem like much, developing this amount of new hydroelectric power would mean that 12GW of fossil fuel power could be retired from the grid.  This has the potential to avoid over 100 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from coal per year.

Image Source: National Hydropower Asset Assessment Program

Image Source: National Hydropower Asset Assessment Program

As the map above from the April 2012 study “An Assessment of Energy Potential at Non-Powered Dams in the United States” illustrates, non-powered dams show particularly good potential for electricity generation in the heart of the country, namely the Upper Mississippi, Lower Mississippi, and Ohio watersheds.  There are several dams in these watersheds with potential to generate 250-500 MW of energy capacity.  Those are fairly small compared to massive hydroelectric plants like Niagara Falls, which generates over 2000 MW, but they are still resources worth developing, and far better than fossil fuels.

The ORNL gave us even better news this April!  According to an intensive geographic assessment of over three million stream reaches throughout the country, the ORNL estimates that if every stream with generating potential of at least one megawatt were to be harnessed for power, we could generate an additional 65.6 GW of renewable electricity around the country.  This number excludes areas where dams cannot be built due to federal regulation, wilderness areas, and national parks.  Every precaution needs to be taken to protect existing ecosystems, national parks, and recreation areas that are irreplacable.  Luckily, ORNL includes environmental, social, and even recreational data in its assessments.  This should mean that when we further exploit our hydropower potential, we have the information to do it with great care.

Several concerns surround the feasibility of tapping all NPDs, however. There are vulnerable ecosystems, location concerns, and costs of construction to consider.  Even though the dam portion of an NPD already exists, further development is necessary to arm it with the power to generate energy.  It probably won’t be possible, or sensible, to turn every non powered dam in America into a generating station, particularly those with small capacity.  Hydroelectricity development is something we should be more excited about, however.  It is a tried-and-true reliable energy source; after all, Niagara Falls first lit up the Northeast over 100 years ago and though it’s undergone a few updates in its time, it’s still generating power today.

Now there is a wealth of information and geographic data about the hydropower potential in the United States.  We need to phase out some fossil fuel and add more water to our energy mix!  (After all – water is the universal solvent!)

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