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Published on October 10th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


How the U.S. Is Getting More Hydropower without Building a Single New Dam

October 10th, 2012 by  

The U.S. has 2,400 hydropower dams, many of which sport out-of-date generating equipment that is, well, generations old. That’s the bad news. The good news is, it all adds up to the potential for a massive energy efficiency upgrade program that could significantly boost U.S. hydropower generation without the monumental expense and environmental disruption involved in new dam construction. In fact, the first round of hydropower upgrades is already underway at an average cost of less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

DOE energy efficient hydropower upgrades get more power from same dams

A Hydropower Upgrade for Boulder, Colorado

The Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Facility in Boulder, Colorado is a case in point. Dating all the way back to 1910, the facility just underwent an overhaul that replaced two older turbines with one new energy-efficient unit. The new unit alone can generate 30% more energy than both of the older turbines combined.

The upgrades can also cut the energy required to run hydropower facilities. At Boulder, the $1.18 million project included new transformers, storage tanks, and wiring, along with remote operating equipment.

Hydropower Upgrades and Green Jobs, Too

The Boulder upgrade was supported by the Department of Energy through the Recovery Act, as part of DOE’s larger hydropower upgrade program.

DOE launched the program in 2009 as a $30.6 million, seven-dam hydropower upgrade package, the highlight of which is the installation of modern new turbines that are far more energy efficient and more fish-friendly, too.

In announcing the program, Energy Secretary Steven Chu underscored the three-for-one benefits of investing federal taxpayer dollars on local hydropower upgrades:

“One of the best opportunities we have to increase our supply of clean energy is by bringing our hydropower systems into the 21st Century. With this investment, we can create jobs, help our environment and give more renewable power to our economy without building a single new dam.”

Squeezing More Juice from the Same Package

In terms of the national grid, the DOE program is relatively modest. All together, the seven projects will increase hydropower generation by about 187,000 megawatt-hours per year, or enough to power 12,000 homes.

Keep in mind, though, that the program was designed as a showcase for the potential to boost energy production at hundreds of other dams around the U.S. for just pennies per kilowatt-hour.

Another thing to keep in mind is the potential to boost generating capacity even further, by piggybacking hydrokinetic turbines onto existing dams. These turbines can run on the ambient flow of water just below a dam, rather than requiring pressurized water like conventional turbines.

More Energy, Less Disruption

The concept of adding more energy production to a pre-built environment is rapidly becoming a hallmark of the new alternative energy landscape.

Retrofitting existing buildings with solar panels and micro wind turbines is another aspect of that trend.

On a broader scale, concept of more energy production without new disruption also echoes one of the Obama Administration’s green jobs programs, called Re-Powering America’s Land, which is designed to find sites for new alternative energy operations on brownfields and other classified lands that have already been developed (and then abandoned) for industrial use.

Image: Dam (Some rights reserved by USACEpublicaffairs)

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About the Author

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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