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Non-powered dams such as the Byrd Creek Dam in Crossville, Tennessee, may prove viable as retrofitted hydropower facilities, producing sustainable, clean electricity. Credit: Scott DeNeale/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Clean Power

Hydropower — Retrofitting Untapped Dams to Do More

Although more than 92,000 dams populate the country, the vast majority — about 89,000 — do not generate electricity through hydropower.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are assessing the viability of retrofitting some of these non-powered dams, which may add up to 12 gigawatts of additional electricity to the power grid — enough to power 9 million homes or every home in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

In a new report released by the U.S. Department of Energy, ORNL identifies key development challenges, including aging infrastructure, dam design limitations, costs, timelines and environmental considerations. The goal is to accelerate design approaches and innovations that increase energy from hydropower while ensuring environmental compatibility and economic feasibility.

“Retrofitting represents a unique opportunity for NPDs,” reads the report. “(And) is referred to in this report as adding equipment or components to an NPD to augment its function (regardless of whether hydropower is involved).”

To give a sense of the broader scope of the potential for this project, we highlight another paragraph from the report. “Within the United States, more than 85,000 NPDs are scattered across every state as well as within Guam and Puerto Rico,” it reads. “These structures come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, varying from simple embankments just a few feet tall to substantial structures thousands of feet long and hundreds of feet tall. They also vary in terms of age, purpose, construction, storage capacity, hazard potential, condition, and physical components, among other characteristics. Within a broader context, NPDs are part of complex systems interacting with the surrounding environment and community. Throughout history, dam development has evolved to become increasingly aware of these interactions, including the positive and negative effects of dam construction and operation within this broader context.”

“Hydropower has over 100 years of history in the U.S.,” said ORNL’s Scott DeNeale. “DOE’s continued investments position the industry well to power untapped water infrastructure while achieving low-impact renewable energy growth.” — Mimi McHale


Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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