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With Canal Hydropower, Still Waters Make Electricity

hydropower can be scavenged from canals like thisA modest-looking canal hydropower project in Oregon could be the start of the next big thing in alternative energy in the U.S. Instead of requiring the construction of a new dam, the new Klamath Irrigation District“C-Drop” project scavenges power from an existing canal system. It’s a relatively cheap, painless way to provide affordable, sustainable energy to rural communities, so what’s not to like?

Sustainable hydropower in the U.S.A.

Reclaiming hydropower from pre-built environments has been a focus of the Obama Administration’s sustainable energy initiatives, though until this spring it got little notice. That all changed last year when the Department of the Interior found that scores of sites at its canals in the Western U.S. could potentially be retrofitted generate hydropower.

Just last month, DOI announced that it found scores of additional sites, for a total of more than 1.5 million megawatt hours annually (enough to power 30,000 homes) in potential canal-based hydropower.

The Department of Energy has also found that an extra 12 gigawatts of power could be ours for the taking by retrofitting existing dams, with makes canal hydropower look like a drop in the bucket.

However, canal hydropower could still make a huge difference to relatively small, remote communities and agricultural areas.

The Klamath C-Drop project

The C-Drop project involves harvesting the energy from an existing waterfall formed when water flows between two canals in the Klamath District, from A-Canal to C-Canal. Rather than building a dam or other water storage to provide steady pressure to the turbines, the turbines will adjust automatically as the routine flow of the canal changes.

Benefits of hydrokinetic power

The basic difference between the C-Drop project and conventional hydropower is the design of a hydrokinetic system, which relies simply on the ambient flow of water rather than storing pressure behind a dam.

Without a dam or other storage system, very little about the canal ecosystem will change. Temperature, nutrients, pH and other characteristics will vary only as much as they normally do in the canal.

The turbine could result in a temporary lowering of oxygen levels in the water, since it will reduce the turbulence of the waterfall, but an existing screen on A-Canal already prevents most fish from entering, so little impact on aquatic life in the canal is predicted.

An environmental impact statement also noted that any existing canal leakage that feeds into nearby wetlands would continue as always.

More hydro, more green jobs

In addition to existing dams and canals, hydrokinetic turbines could also piggyback on other built environments like wastewater treatment plants and food processing plants.

There are clearly some growth opportunities here, and the Obama Administration has already lent a big assist to the hydrokinetic power industry. In 2010, the Department of Energy provided funding for Tulane University to kick off a hydrokinetic test bed at its Mississippi River Riversphere project, which is designed to provide private companies with a reliable, affordable platform for testing new turbines in real conditions.

Image: A canal in Oregon, Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.



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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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