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Conduit hydropower presents opportunities in every state. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Clean Power

Existing Water Infrastructure Holds Key To Generating More U.S. Hydropower

The United States has a great network of waterways that is used for municipal, agricultural, and industrial purposes. With millions of miles of pipelines and conduits, the opportunity to harness that wasted energy with conduit hydropower is tremendous. In a recent study at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, there was great potential found in all 50 states to produce clean conduit hydropower utilizing the existing infrastructure of pipelines and conduits. This is the first time researchers have conducted this kind of analysis in depth.

ORNL estimates that conduit hydropower has the potential to add 1.41 gigawatts of electric power capacity to the country’s power grid, more than enough to power more than a million homes — all while using structures such as water supply pipelines and irrigation canals to supply the water that is already there but is not being utilized.

“You can think of conduit hydropower as low-hanging fruit, and what has been started is a mere drop in the bucket,” said Shih-Chieh Kao, water power program manager at ORNL. “For all its benefits, the biggest barrier is a general lack of awareness of conduit hydropower’s potential.”

For municipalities and other stakeholders to develop conduit hydropower and to utilize their existing infrastructure is relatively simple. The hydropower conduits simply need a good hydraulic head, which is the height of water needed for hydropower generation. There is no need to build new dams or infrastructure facility. Operators can simply install hydropower generators at locations with excess hydraulic heads.

The installations could be planned during upgrades that replace aging infrastructure with more energy-efficient systems. Rural communities can also benefit from conduit hydropower by placing small hydropower generators into their existing infrastructure for net metering, making them less dependent on the external grid.

So far, the permitting process has been streamlined due to the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013 and its amendments in America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. Usually, the federal regulatory approval process can be completed in 45 days, since the conduit hydropower taps into existing infrastructure with minimal environmental impacts. So far, over 350 conduit hydropower projects have been permitted or constructed, with many more to come.

In the study, a systematic analysis of four types of conduits was made by the scientists at ORNL. The scientists looked at water supply pipelines, wastewater discharge, irrigation systems, and thermoelectric cooling water discharge. Using satellite imagery and topography to estimate the overall potential, the scientists concluded that for conduit hydropower to work, the water channels must have sufficient water flow and hydraulic head.

There were five states that shared the greatest potential for conduit hydropower — California, Colorado, Washington, Nebraska, and Oregon, mainly due to their large number of water conduits and their hilly terrain providing the greatest hydraulic head.

Among the three business sectors assessed, the conduits that showed the greatest potential in the analysis were agricultural conduits such as ditches and channels for crop irrigation. Agricultural conduits accounted for nearly half of all conduit hydropower capacity in the study. The highest agricultural conduit potential was seen in Colorado, Washington, Nebraska, California, Oregon, and Idaho. Irrigation and topography were the primary drivers for this assessment.

For the municipal sector, which included drinking water supply and wastewater systems, California was found to have the highest potential for conduit hydropower generation, which was nearly double the next-highest state, New York. Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon, and Pennsylvania also showed potential for capacity generation in this sector.

Due to higher economic and regulatory requirements, the industrial sector — such as industrial pipelines or canals used at thermoelectric generating facilities — posed the greatest uncertainty in the study. The top states for this type of generation were California, Texas, Missouri, New York, and Maryland.

“These assessments open the door across multiple business sectors to what is possible,” said Kao. “By further understanding the costs and benefits of conduit hydropower, decision-makers can leverage what is already available and deliver on the promise of more renewable energy.”

The ORNL research team seeks to raise awareness of conduit hydropower and facilitate further discussion with key stakeholders in water supply and delivery to develop more conduit hydropower projects. The study was supported by the Water Power Technologies Office in DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Source: ORNL

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Written By

Tim holds an electronics engineering degree and is working toward a second degree in IT/web development. He enjoys renewable energy topics and has a passion for the environment. He is a part-time writer and web developer, full time husband and father.


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