Clean Power

Published on May 14th, 2014 | by Guest Contributor


US Could Double Hydropower Production

May 14th, 2014 by  

Originally published on Climate Central.
By Bobby Magill

The Grand Canyon was once targeted as a major dam site by the federal government, a project eventually scuttled after widespread protest. Nobody is revisiting the idea of a dam there, but a new U.S. Department of Energy report shows that the Grand Canyon and other major gorges and rivers across the U.S. may be ideal for hydropower development.

The DOE study suggests America’s rivers are troves of vast untapped hydropower potential and developing many of them could help combat climate change by using renewable energy to reduce reliance on coal-fired power plants that emit climate-changing greenhouse gases.


Untapped U.S. hydropower potential.
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

In all, undeveloped rivers and streams in the U.S. have 84.7 GW (gigawatts) hydropower capacity, enough to generate 460 terawatt hours of electricity annually. Subtracting protected areas such as the Grand Canyon, the U.S. has 65 GW of untapped hydropower capacity, if all the streams with hydropower potential were eventually developed, according to the DOE study.

One gigawatt of hydropower can provide electricity for more than 700,000 homes. Currently, hydropower totals 7 percent of total U.S. electric power production, and full build-out of all the sites that would total 65 GW of capacity would nearly double total U.S. hydropower generation, according to the DOE.

In 2011, the U.S. had 79 gigawatts of hydropopwer generating capacity, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, roughly enough capacity to generate electricity for more than 59 million homes. Hydropower generation is variable, however. In 1984, the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River generated enough power on its own to provide electricity for 700,000 homes because the water level of Lake Mead behind the dam was at its highest point on record. But since 1999, water levels have dropped significantly, and Hoover Dam produces electricity for only about 350,000 homes.

While it is highly unlikely that the U.S. would ever fully build out its hydropower potential because of high regulatory hurdles and the environmental consequences of damming or diverting water from rivers or expanding existing hydropower facilities, the DOE is suggesting that at least some development will help reduce reliance on fossil fuels for electric power generation.

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States with the greatest hydropower generating potential include Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, each of which have at least 3,300 megawatts of hydropower capacity. Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island are among the states with the least hydropower potential, each with 61 or fewer megawatts of untapped capacity.

“The United States has tremendous untapped clean energy resources, and responsible development will help pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable and diverse energy portfolio,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement.

The study is intended to make data available to utilities, project developers and local communities so they can do a site-specific analysis using data on power-producing potential of streams and accompanying environmental factors so they can move ahead with development in an environmentally sustainable manner, DOE spokeswoman Nikita Kumar said.


A hydropower station in New York.
Credit: City University of New York

The DOE’s website about the study says the agency isn’t recommending any new hydropower development at any specific location. National parks were excluded from the final tally of U.S. hydropower generating potential.

In figuring out how much untapped hydropower potential exists in the U.S., researchers at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee analyzed the topography, hydrology and other stream characteristics to determine electricity generating potential for all undeveloped stretches of rivers and streams throughout the country. Some of the streams and rivers the DOE analyzed include some of the West’s largest, including major portions of the Rio Grande, Snake, Columbia, Colorado, Arkansas, Missouri, and North and South Platte rivers, among many others.

Water availability and water flow in certain rivers in the future is a difficult thing to predict, and the hydropower generating capability of a river depends a great deal on stream flow.

“We should expect a fair amount of temporal variability in power generation in much of the U.S., and particularly in the Northwest, from season to season and from year to year,” said Alison Cullen, an energy researcher at the University of Washington’s School of Public Affairs in Seattle. “For our region, this is due to our seasonal precipitation and flow situation.”

More hydropower is generated during the spring and early summer when melting mountain snowpack swells rivers far below, and that’s directly affected by climate change, she said.

“Warming in our region in the wintertime would lead to less storage of precipitation in the snowpack and more water entering the river system directly,” she said. “The form in which our precipitation falls and the exact timing has a huge impact on hydropower potential regardless of the development of the resource.”

Additionally, developing hydropower along rivers where no development exists is often controversial because of its environmental impact, just as damming the Grand Canyon was 50 years ago.

“Capturing more virgin waterways is likely going to be quite a political, economic and regulatory challenge,” Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, a river advocacy group based in Sacramento, Calif., said in an email, adding that new hydropower will likely be used to supplement other renewables such as wind and solar.

“That’s an important contribution to CO2 emission reduction in the electricity sector which should not be discounted. But doubling hydropower production the old-fashioned way, I don’t think so,” he said.

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  • Matt

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Water Power Program classifies hydropower potential into multiple resource classes, including (1) upgrades to existing facilities, (2) expansion of existing facilities, (3) powering of non-powered dams, (4) development of new (undeveloped) stream-reaches, and (5) energy recovery in constructed waterways. In addition, although it does not yield a net production of energy, pumped-storage hydropower is recognized as a valuable resource for grid flexibility and energy storage.

    – Today’s turbine/generate design are better than 60 years ago (1) and there are low head design that did not exist then (4).
    – Now I only spent a little time ready the link, and I could be totally wrong. But it is not clear to me that they include run of river (non-dam approaches).


    There is another way to generate electricity from low-head,
    low flow streams. Check out, then click on Water Power.

  • Rick Kargaard

    Hydropower still depends on precipitation and dought may reduce generating capacity.

    • globi

      Luckily, when there’s no rain there’s all the more sun.

  • globi

    The US could also just increase the capacity of the existing dams without increasing the actual energy produced. This would facilitate balancing of power production from PV and Wind-power if necessary.
    (Switzerland gets 55% of its electricity from hydro power. However, the actual hydro capacity amounts to approx. 200% of the Swiss average power consumption. In this case this surplus capacity has been mostly used to export power during peak demand in central Europe.)

  • bussdriver78

    There is a greener version which uses a whirlpool but it generates less energy; plus you still have to stream to the side so things can go upstream.

  • Ronald Brakels

    By lowering energy prices wind and solar power reduce the likelyhood of new hydroelectric dams being built. While hydroelectricity, wind, and solar work well together, the United States will soon have an over suppy (or for people who don’t like the term over supply – a glorious bounty of) natural gas plants that will be used well below their planned capacity thanks to new wind and solar capacity. This excess capacity will also make it unlikely that new hydroelectric capacity will be built.

  • spec9

    Do it. I can’t stand it when people go overboard and fight reasonable hydropower systems. If not hydropower then would you rather have coal plant? Or a nuke plant? Go with the lesser evil.

  • Offgridmanpolktn

    Now for a devil is in the details comment. On a nearby TVA flood control lake that is relatively small, 1/4-2 1/2 miles at high water level they did a power turbine replacement project, that was started about four years ago and finished about a year and a half ago. It was the first time since the early fifties (when the original dam and power installation) that the equipment had been updated, and required a whole new distribution sub station. If the TVA comments in the local paper are correct it ended up quadrupling the yearly generation.
    So I guess my question to the feds might be just how many of our current hydropower sites could benefit from this type of improvement? Even on the bigger sites like the Hoover dam mentioned in the article when was the last time the generating equipment was improved?
    While living in upstate NY a big deal was made over the turbine improvements done in the late sixties or early seventies. However as seen in all facets of our lives there’s been a lot of technological innovation in the past forty years. How much of our current hydro infrastructure has been left with the tech of fifty years ago much the same as our highways?

    • Offgridmanpolktn

      Apologies the improvements referred to in NY were at Niagara Falls, got ahead of myself and posted without checking.

    • Ronald Brakels

      Generally speaking updating infrastructure at dams won’t do much to improve the amount of electricity produced (assuming water flow is the same) as generators don’t really degrade much in efficiency over time. However, what can be done is to increase the generating capacity, so that some dams that now might act in a baseload mode of operation can instead act as load following or peak generators and so make the power they provide more valuable by supplying it when demand is greater and prices are higher. This lets it be intergrated with wind and solar energy more easily.

    • Geektothebone83

      There is a modernization project underway at Hoover Dam, as well as many other dams.

  • Banned by Bob

    Environmentalists battling environmentalists. A lawyer’s dream and a sure fire approach to getting nothing done.

    • Ronald Brakels

      Could just price in externalities in a sensible way and let market forces sort things out. Although it’s not a terribly popular idea in English speaking countries at the moment. No carbon price in the US, Australia has decided that a stable climate is of the devil and is set to eliminate its carbon price, and the English speaking champion of the environmental world, the UK, has decided that paying a more for nuclear in 10 years time than what wind and solar cost now is a good idea.

      • Banned by Bob

        The externalities in the case of more hydro is going to come in the form of pricing the value of different forms of wildlife impacted by additional hydro projects.

        • Ronald Brakels

          It’s not particularly relevent. If the dams weren’t built back in the 70s when there was rapidly increasing demand and the US was building coal and nuclear plants they aren’t about to be built now with lower electricity prices and static and soon to be declining demand.

          • Banned by Bob

            I agree. You might want to let the DOE in on that.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Well, I guess in their defence I could point out that US interest rates are now lower than they used to be and all else equal that makes dam building more attractive than it otherwise would be. And these people were probably just told to assess hydroelectric potential, not perform an economic analysis of whether or not it’s worth the cost.

        • Bob_Wallace

          The new hydro under consideration does not impact wildlife. It involves adding generation to existing dams and installing run of river generation.

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