HydroVision Preview: New Hydro Development: Powering an Economic Rebound

Hydropower is among a variety of renewable energy sources poised to revive the U.S.’s economy and diversify our energy portfolio. New Development will be one of several tracks offered at HydroVision International.

Our U.S. energy policy is at a crossroads. Where we get our energy and how we use it is at the forefront of an important national discussion, with the outcome to shape the future of our country, its citizens, and our children. The debate is keenly focused on how to meet consumer and business demand for energy, while also reducing the U.S.’s dependence on foreign sources and mitigating the potentially harmful effects of traditional energy sources on the environment.

This issue has become increasingly complex as the government seeks to revive the economy amid one of the deepest recessions in U.S. history. Some priorities already have been outlined to address the most pressing energy issues, including:

    – Updating the nation’s power transmission system;
    – Encouraging energy efficiency practices among consumers and businesses;
    – Developing new energy technology;
    – Spurring the development of clean coal technologies and additional renewable energy sources; and
    – Providing federal incentives for conservation measures and renewable energy development, such as clean renewable energy bonds (CREBs) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Financial Institution Partnership Program.


Besides using our available energy sources more effectively and strengthening the U.S.’s energy portfolio, all of these efforts have the potential to jump-start the economy and create thousands of “green-collar” jobs. In fact, a study released in October 2009 by the National Hydropower Association indicates that as many as 700,000 jobs could be created by 2025 through the construction of new hydropower capacity in the U.S. (For more on this study, visit www.hydoworld.com and search for “hydropower expansion.”)

In addition, states are beginning to address energy challenges by encouraging conservation, better use of available energy, and development of renewable energy sources. Some require energy companies to derive specific percentages of energy from defined renewable sources. Recognizing the vast renewable resources in their backyards, western states have become particularly active on this front. Colorado, for instance, was the first U.S. state to pass such a requirement and now requires that utilities generate at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.

While biomass, wind, and solar power largely have dominated the renewable energy discussion in recent years, hydropower has staged a quiet comeback. Hydropower ranks among the largest sources of renewable energy in the world, accounting for 63 percent of the energy produced from renewable sources, according to REN21, an international policy group based in Paris. In the U.S., hydropower provides about 10 percent of our electricity today, with a much higher percentage in certain U.S. regions, such as the Pacific Northwest. Hydropower generation from U.S. electric utilities grew 4.3 percent during the first seven months of 2009 (see Table 1 on Page 30).

However, a significant amount of potential remains. The Virtual Hydropower Prospector, developed in 2004 by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), performs basic natural stream resource assessments. INL analyzed 500,000 water reaches and determined they had a gross power of nearly 600,000 MW. Of this total, nearly 73,000 MW is developed potential. Of the remaining amount, INL determined total available potential was more than 326,000 MW. In addition, INL suggested that between small hydro, upgrades, and installing hydro at existing dams, 130,000 projects exist with a power potential of 60,000 MW.

With this significant available capacity, power producers and utilities are considering and pursuing a variety of strategies to increase the amount of energy derived from hydroelectric sources. Instead of building new dams, savvy engineers are retrofitting existing dams to add hydroelectric capacity at sites that currently lack it. Just 3 percent of the nation’s 80,000 dams currently have hydroelectric capacity, leaving more than 77,000 dams available for potential hydro development. This fact is prompting numerous feasibility studies to gauge the viability of adding hydro at locks and dams across the U.S.

Improving the way water is stored, delivered, and used can result in higher power production at existing facilities (see Table 1). This can be done through equipment improvements, better reservoir regulation, small increases in reservoir water levels, or other hydraulic improvements. Adding hydropower units at existing facilities also allows for increased renewable generation. Replacing old equipment can result in increased power production. As municipalities and utilities examine their alternatives for power generation and seek to adhere to state renewable portfolio requirements, existing dams and reservoirs represent significant opportunity.

Table 1: Net Generation from Hydroelectric (Conventional) Power

Hydropower also can work in tandem with renewable energy sources, including wind and solar. For instance, pumped-storage hydroelectric facilities are designed to store large quantities of water that can then be tapped “on demand” to generate significant streams of power. This stored energy can supplement other renewable energy sources that are dependent on external factors, such as the wind blowing or the sun shining. Combining hydropower with other sources of renewable energy also would help stabilize the nation’s transmission grid and pave the way for the so-called “Smart Grid.”

No single form of energy can stand alone to meet the growing energy needs of the U.S. By 2025, U.S. energy demand is expected to increase 35 percent, according to the Annual Energy Outlook. Renewable energy, including hydropower, will play a pivotal role in addressing the U.S.’s future energy and employment needs, while also reducing America’s carbon footprint. Updating and expanding the U.S.’s energy portfolio to include an array of renewable sources will improve our energy infrastructure and create hundreds of thousands of green jobs. Doing this will create a win-win-win situation for private industry, the government, and the environment. 

A Focus on New Hydro Development at HydroVision International 2010 

Norm Bishop is senior vice president for hydroelectric and renewable energy with Knight Piesold, a consulting engineering company. He is the track chair for the New Development track at HydroVision International, to be held July 27-30 in Charlotte, N.C. This article was adapted from the July 2009 issue of Power Engineering, a PennWell Corporation publication, and originally was written while Bishop was a vice president with MWH Americas Inc. 

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