Grand-Coulee-DamThis post takes a look at hydro power potential in the US, which is significant. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has estimated that there is more than 12GW of untapped capacity at existing dams across the US; this is in part due to the fact that only 3% of existing dams generate electricity. Furthermore a 2006 DOE report noted that in every region realistic increases in generation capacity ranged from a minimum of 50% to well over 100%, which represents a lot of potential additional power. Large dams have serious environmental issues, disrupting Salmon runs for example, but a lot more power can be generated from existing dams and from less disruptive run of the river hydro.

by John Whitney, Co-Founder and President of Taylor-Whitney Architects, Founder and Principal of the Clean Energy Action Project. Connect with John on Linkedin. Read his blog.

I’m a huge fan of cool science, engineering marvels, solar PV technology, hybrid CSP, and smart grids, but I really get a kick out of simple clean energy technology that can be built without clean rooms and semi-conductors. Stuff that you can almost imagine yourself building in your back yard (assuming that you have a machine shop in your garage). I bet I could build a windmill. Concentrated solar power? Essentially a well-engineered collection of mirrors and pipes. And, of course, hydropower.

With only one exception, hydropower is the least costly way to generate electricity if (and that’s a big if) you have the water resources to turn the turbines. According to the U.S. EIA AEO2011 (Energy Information Administration Annual Energy Outlook 2011), the national average LCOE (levelized cost of energy) for new hydropower generation is a very low, $0.0864/ kWh. Less than new coal generation ($0.94 to $0.1362/ kWh), less than new nuclear generation ($0.1139/ kWh) and less than new natural gas combined cycle generation with carbon capture sequestration (CCS) ($0.0893/ kWh).

Per the comprehensive and exhaustive AEO2011 report, the only way to generate electricity for less than hydropower is natural gas generation without CCS, which will cost between $0.0631 and $0.661/ kWh.

So, even though hydropower is by far and away the largest component of our renewable energy fleet, producing 272,130.9 GWh of electricity with 100.7 GW capacity in 2009 (as noted by the U.S EIA), nearly doubling the combined output of all other renewable resources, why is that hydropower production only about 6.9% of our annual electricity generation? The simple answer is that we are limited as to where we can build hydropower generation plants (we have to go where the water is). The more thorough answer is that we are not coming anywhere close to effectively utilizing our available hydro resources.

The U. S. Department of Energy’s 1997 State Resource Assessment Report identified 5,677 potential hydropower sites in the United States with total undeveloped capacity of about 30 GW. A much more comprehensive 2006 DOE commissioned report by the Idaho National Laboratory identifies 127,758 sites having a total gross power potential of 98.7 GW as feasible hydropower project sites. This comprehensive assessment conducted in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) used state-of-the-art digital elevation models and geographic information system (GIS) tools to estimate the power potential of a mathematical analog of every stream segment in the country.

Note that the 127,758 sites are the feasible sites. They are only 26% of the total 500,157 sites identified in the report as capable of supporting hydropower generation and only 33% of the total potential 297.45 GW power capacity. Feasible means acceptable environmental costs and should mean that LCOE for the potential 98.7 GW of hydropower capacity should be in the AEO2011 range of $0.0864/ kWh.

For 2010, the U.S. EIA recorded the following hydroelectric production:

New England: 7,880 GWh
Middle Atlantic: 27,571 GWh
East North Central: 3,668 GWh
West North Central: 11,380 GWh
South Atlantic: 15,099 GWh
East South Central: 20,000 GWh
West South Central: 8,796 GWh
Mountain: 30,972 GWh
Pacific Contiguous: 130,277 GWh
Pacific Noncontiguous: 1,410 GWh
U. S. Total: 257,052 GWh

The 2006 DOE report noted that in every region realistic increases in generation capacity ranged from a minimum of 50% to well over 100%

With the potential to add 98.7 GW of clean, renewable, low-cost hydropower generation to the national power generation fleet the question is: “Why isn’t hydropower a more visible component of our national clean energy strategy?”

Well, there is activity on this front. Perhaps not as much as we would like, however, the hydropower logjam appears to be breaking up.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Reports 12.6 GW Untapped Capacity at Existing Facilities

In a study released by the Department of Energy on 5 April 2011, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory reported that the U.S. could add 12.6 GW of hydropower generation just by adding equipment to the existing dam facilities. The report notes that only 3% of dams in the U.S. currently generate electricity and that adding generation capacity to these existing dams would be a low cost effort. Furthermore, the report reveals that this untapped capacity is available in regions with less than optimal solar and wind renewable energy resources.

This is a remarkable report and should galvanize hydropower advocates. 12.6 GW of renewable hydropower capacity begging to be snapped up.

$26.6 Million Federal Funding to Develop Advanced Hydropower Technologies

On 5 April 2011 the Departments of Energy and the Interior announced $26.6 million in funding for research and development projects to advance hydropower technology. This funding is focused on development of innovative technologies that can produce power more efficiently, reduce costs, and increase sustainable hydropower generation at sites not previously considered practical. Funds will be awarded to projects in four areas:

• Sustainable Small Hydropower: $10.5 million awarded over three (3) years

• Environmental Mitigation Technologies for Conventional Hydropower: $2.25 million awarded over three (3) years. For innovative conventional hydropower technologies that feature enhanced environmental performance designs to increase electricity generation while mitigating fish and habitat impacts and enhancing downstream water quality.

• Sustainable Pumped Storage Hydropower: $11.875 million awarded over 4 years. To accelerate pumped storage hydropower projects already in the pipeline with emphasis on integrated wind and/or solar intermittency mitigation projects.

• Advanced Conventional Hydropower System Testing at a Bureau of Reclamation Facility: $2.0 million awarded over three (3) years. For innovative, low-head hydropower technologies at non-powered hydro facilities and sites owned by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.

This funding program is one of those good news/ bad news situations. It is good news that the program is funded and will be implemented. But bad news in that $26.6 million is a pitifully small investment in encouraging hydropower generation.

Hydropower Resource Assessment at Existing Bureau of Reclamation Facilities

On 31 March 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior released the results of an internal study that shows it could generate up to 1,000 GWh of electricity annually by adding hydropower capacity at 70 of its existing dams, canals, tunnels, and other water-handling facilities. The report, “Hydropower Resource Assessment at Existing Reclamation Facilities”, studied 530 sites throughout Reclamation’s jurisdiction and made a preliminary identification of 70 facilities with the most potential to add hydropower. These 70 facilities are located in 14 states. Colorado, Utah, Montana, Texas, and Arizona have the facilities with the most hydropower potential, but facilities with hydropower potential were also found in California, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.

The Bureau of Reclamation currently has 58 existing hydroelectric plants with a total installed capacity of about 15.0 GW. If implemented, these recommended upgrades will add about 219 MW of generation to existing facilities at a very low cost.

An example of the kind of work proposed by Reclamation is the 2009 Lease of Power Privilege for the Mid-Pacific Region Lewiston hydroelectric plant. That agreement, with Trinity Public Utilities District, calls for the replacement of an aging 350 kW hydroelectric unit with a new 2.0 MW unit. The bureau will be publishing two Federal Register notices in the near future regarding Lease of Power Privilege opportunities at Granby and Pueblo dams in Colorado; dams identified in the report as having high potential for hydropower development.

Mother Ann Lee Hydroelectric Station

Finally, a very cool feel-good story from, of all places, Kentucky (the coal industry’s heart of darkness). The Mother Ann Lee Hydroelectric Station is a 2.04 MW hydropower plant located at Lock and Dam 7 on the Kentucky River near Harrodsburg, KY. The plant was built in 1927 and includes 3 turbine-generators. It was operated until 1999 by Kentucky Utilities Co., when problems (mostly deferred maintenance) with the generating units left all three generators inoperable. At that time, KU filed plans for the demolition of the plant, including an estimated demolition cost of $3.4 million.

Short-circuiting a bad idea, in December 2005 Lock 7 Hydro Partners purchased the plant from KU, and began renovations. It is now restored and back in operation. The facility is one of only about 30 hydro plants in the United States to receive certification from the Low Impact Hydropower Institute for limiting the plant’s environmental impacts on river flows, water quality, wildlife and other criteria.

This is cause for celebration. Other than incentives for ethanol, Kentucky has a terrible record with renewable energy. If a 2.04 MW solar project managed to get built in Kentucky it would be in the national news. With abundant rivers and a distributed network of Army Corps of Engineers flood control lakes, perhaps the future of renewable energy in Kentucky is with hydropower.

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© 2011, John Whitney. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: John Whitney (3 Articles)

John Whitney AIA is a registered architect with over 25 years experience in all aspects of project development, design, management, and construction. He is Co-Founder and President of Taylor-Whitney Architects and is Founder and Principal of the Clean Energy Action Project, and is active in the realm of cleantech and renewable energy. Connect with John on Linkedin. Read his blog.

  • Jackson Coleman

    Thank you, John, for this remarkable article. An excellent comprehensive view of the issue. I am so intrigued I’ve subscibed to the magazine, and will reccomend the material to associates. Look forward to more of the same.

  • John Whitney AIA

    I was reminded recently that I need to broaden my picture and think a little more globally. China, for example, currently has about 200 GW of hydropower capacity up and running. This is double what we have in the U.S. And, they are planning to add another 100 GW of capacity between now and 2015. See:

    China’s 12th Five-Year Plan indicates that they intend to have 430 GW of hydro power capacity by 2020 (the equivalent of a adding a new 18.2 GW Three Gorges Dam every year). The government will be investing $136 billion on the hydro projects. See:

    Another striking example would be Norway, where they produce about 120 TWh of hydroelectric power annually. In Norway, 99% of their produced electricity is hydro sourced. See:

    And then there is Brazil which uses hydropower to generate 80% of their electricity (over 80 GW, global number 2 hydroelectricity producer after China). See:

    Brazil just announced the start of construction of the Belo Monte Dam which will have a capacity of 11 GW and will use Chinese ultra-high voltage (UHV) electricity transmission technologies to transmit the electricity over 1,200 miles to more developed regions. See:

    There is no doubt that both Brazil and China have some serious environmental issues that they may be ignoring, but, my question is: If the Brazilians can come up with the funds to build that kind of capacity and the 1,200 mile UHV transmission to go with it, what is the U.S waiting for?

  • alexa

    This was very helpful for my research project, but i was wondering the cost for hydroelectric power. It said something about $0.0631 and 0.661/kWh. what does that mean or how much is that in regular money? sorry if this is a stupid question… I am not even in highschool yet…

  • daniel maris

    KwH means Kilowatt hour – running something using I Kilowatt power for one hour.

    So this article is saying that to produce enough electricity to power a 1000 watt (= 1 Kilowatt) toaster will cost a little over 6 cents an hour. (However that probably doesn’t cover the cost of getting the electricity from the dam to your home, so you would still pay a lot more than that.)

    This site tells you how much power different things in your house use:

    A medium television might use 250 watts – so it uses about a quarter the power of the 1000 watts toaster (250×4 = 1000)

    Hope that helps and isn’t too confusing!