As North America and specifically the United States moves to create more of its electricity from cleaner burning fuels, hydropower may spring to life. While there will be obstacles, a new government study suggest that it can grow by as much as 50 percent in 35 years.
Hydropower is already the largest contributor to the renewable energy cause, making up about 10 percent of the nation’s electricity portfolio. It is clean and the technologies to improve performance exist. But if it is to expand its national footprint, though, its advocates must emphasize their commitment to sustainability before they raise funds. With that in mind, the industry says that it stands ready to deliver.
“U.S. hydropower has the potential to grow significantly with only 3 percent of the nation’s existing dams equipped to generate power,” says Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office has released its Hydropower Vision that finds that the domestic fuel source in the United States could grow from 101,000 megawatts of capacity in 2015 to 150,000 megawatts by 2050. That equates to having 35 million homes powered by hydropower in 2050. If that were to occur, it adds that there would be a $209 billion cost avoidance in terms of damages from greenhouse gases.
As of the end of 2015, the U.S. hydropower generation fleet included 2,198 active power plants with a total capacity of roughly 101,000 megawatts, it adds. Hydropower power has provided 85 percent of the cumulative U.S. renewable power generation since 1950. The near-term growth potential is estimate to be 9,400 megawatts.
Where will it come from? The conventional way to produce hydroelectricity is through dams. But the amount of power is contingent upon the speed of the water that turns the turbines. Dams can increase the velocity by raising the water level. But they leave big footprints and can cause local populations to disperse. Investors, meantime, are skeptical because the permitting process is slow and costly.
Perhaps the most fruitful activity will come from those smaller so-called run-of-the-river facilities. They generate power by redirecting the river’s flow using distributed hydropower units that include underwater watermills. While such technology is dependent on stream flow and access to power lines, it does not require the construction of dams that block water and kill off aquatic life.
The Obama administration is focusing its efforts on improving both run-of-the-river technologies, which have capacity factors of 55-60 percent — or more than wind and solar energy. The White House also wants to improve the reservoirs that may use pumped storage that releases the water to create electricity when it is most needed. That increases reliability.
Beyond improving the technologies that generate hydropower, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of the Interior want better environmental performance. That is, hydropower is sharply criticized for damaging aquatic and wildlife habitats, which has prevented the growth of the sector.
All this is in the context of the recent meeting among the United States, Canada and Mexico vowing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by generating half their electricity through clean energy sources. Hydropower will figure prominently, giving it new life as North American grapples with its carbon future.