December 27, 2005
Many Small Hydropower Projects In Planning Stages

High energy prices are making a lot of dam upgrade projects for hydroelectric power look economic.

Propelled by high energy costs, federal incentives, and an eased licensing process, at least 104 projects in 29 states - with 2,400 megawatts of new capacity - have been granted "preliminary permits" by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates hydropower development. Many other projects in the works have not yet been officially reported by FERC, observers say.

This is happening against a backdrop of fights by environmentalists to get old dams torn down. Make energy prices high enough and I think the rate at which environmentalists win the dam battles will drop.

If the best existing dams were upgraded to generate electricity they could generate 17 gigawatts of power.

About 4 in 5 projects on the books are tiny - producing less than 20 megawatts of power. But if all 104 projects now in the planning stages are built, they would contribute 2.4 gigawatts to generating capacity nationwide.

The potential exists for much more, say federal researchers. Of 80,000 existing dams, only about 2,500 generate electricity. Upgrading those hydropower dams could boost power by 4,300 megawatts. Retrofitting the most promising of the remaining 77,000 dams could generate as much as 17,000 megawatts, according to a recent US Department of Energy Report.

Would you rather have more dams for electricity or more coal burning power plants or more nuclear power plants?

To put that potential 17 gigawatts of additional hydroelectric power in perspective, in the United States the US government's Energy Information Administration projects 174 gigawatts of additional electric power generating capacity from coal by the year 2030.

In the AEO2006 reference case, the projected average prices of natural gas and coal delivered to electricity generators in 2025 are 31 cents and 11 cents per million Btu, respectively—higher than the comparable prices in AEO2005. Although the projected levels of coal consumption for electricity generation in 2025 are similar in the two forecasts, higher natural gas prices and slower growth in electricity demand in AEO2006 lead to significantly lower levels of natural gas consumption for electricity generation. As a result, projected cumulative capacity additions and generation from natural-gas-fired power plants are lower in the AEO2006 reference case, and capacity additions and generation from coal-fired power plants through 2025 are similar to those in AEO2005. In the later years of the AEO2006 projection, natural-gas-fired generation is expected to decline, displaced by generation from new coal-fired plants (Figure 5). The AEO2006 projection of 1,070 billion kilowatthours of electricity generation from natural gas in 2025 is 24 percent lower than the AEO2005 projection of 1,406 billion kilowatthours.

In the AEO2006 reference case, the natural gas share of electricity generation (including generation in the end-use sectors) is projected to increase from 18 percent in 2004 to 22 percent around 2020, before falling to 17 percent in 2030. The coal share is projected to decline slightly, from 50 percent in 2004 to 49 percent in 2020, before increasing to 57 percent in 2030. Additions to coal-fired generating capacity in the AEO2006 reference case are projected to total 102 gigawatts between 2004 and 2025, as compared with 86 gigawatts in AEO2005. Over the entire period from 2004 to 2030, 174 gigawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity is projected to be added in the AEO2006 reference case, including 19 gigawatts at CTL plants.

Nuclear generating capacity in the AEO2006 reference case is projected to increase from about 100 gigawatts in 2004 to about 109 gigawatts in 2019 and to remain at that level (about 10 percent of total U.S. generating capacity) through 2030. The total projected increase in nuclear capacity between 2004 and 2030 includes 3 gigawatts expected to come from uprates of existing plants that continue operating and 6 gigawatts of capacity at newly constructed power plants, stimulated by the provisions in EPACT2005, that are expected to begin operation between 2014 and 2020.

Coal is cheaper than natural gas. But burning coal generates more pollution. Making coal burn with less emissions raises the cost of burning coal. About half of the new electric power generation capacity added between now and 2030 is projected to be from coal.

Currently the whole world has about 350 gigawatts of nuclear electric capacity. But China might build 300 gigawatts of nuclear power plants by the year 2050.

If you do not want higher energy prices and you do not want energy sources that pollute then the only remaining option is to greatly accelerate the rate of advance of energy technologies. But I do not see a political consensus in favor of that option in the United States or in Europe for that matter. Over in China they are going to burn enormously larger quantities of coal and build dozens or hundreds of nuclear power plants. The US is sticking with the use of increasing amounts of coal. Technological advances will eventually make coal less bad than it is today. But it is not clear to what extent governments will force the coal burners to use more expensive technologies to burn coal more cleanly. Is there any prospect for coal gassification to make cleaner coal at no higher total cost?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 December 27 09:59 PM  Energy Policy

K said at December 29, 2005 10:32 PM:

The numbers just don't work for hydropower. Everything mentioned would not make much of a dent for America.

And everything mentioned is not available. First, it is probably overstated. Secondly, the earth contouring, land use, dam costs, zoning battles, and enviromental constraints would stop what is described.

It would take thousands, or tens of thousands, of micro turbines and regulating stations. Widely scattered the maintenance and operator costs would soar.

The value of dams is to restrain water. And in America the best use of water is for irrigation and people.

Hydropower releases water, every watt generated makes the water less available for better uses. Our huge dams wrestle with power v. water already. And the really good sites are used.

By all means systematically upgrade efficiency and perhaps build in a few places. But don't expect much.

Randall. It's been a long time since I logged in. It is good that you let all things be considered, even those I doubt.

aa2 said at December 30, 2005 1:47 PM:

I just read a fantastic book FP, the bottomless well, why wew will never run out of energy. I would highly recommend it to you, one of the best books I have read, on the same level as Kurzweil's books.

One point you are making is America and Europe there is not the political will to add a lot of this power. I would say in America there is a small amount of will if it is coal. A key point about the world is the future is defined by those civilizations that are the most successful in the present. Those civlizations which utilize the most ordered energy will dominate the future.

aa2 said at December 30, 2005 1:51 PM:

Good post K. Hydro imo is great if you need to damn a river for flood control purposes, then might as well throw in some generators. It is also incredible as a peak power source, connected in a grid with some base load stations.

Small hydro is moronic to me. It devastates the creaks and streams where they are put. It requires like you said tons of maintenance and upkeep, for piddly amounts of power. You want mass generating stations with low upkeep per gigawatt.

Micro-hydro was great in like 10th-18th century England. Wind was great even before that.

Randall Parker said at December 30, 2005 8:49 PM:


I agree that we are not going to run out of energy. If oil gets too expensive we'll use coal and convert it to oil as the Germans did in WWII. Or we'll use shale oil. We'll use nuclear power to process shale to extract the oil and so nukes will substitute even for transportation. I also think we'll get better battery technology eventually.

I see lots of ways that the different forms of energy can substitute for each other. At $120 per barrel oil we'd find plenty of ways to get around without using oil.

What I'm trying to argue is that there are trade-offs between the energy sources and that if one opposes energy source X then one is implicity accepting energy source Y and one ought to ask if that trade-off is really worth the price.

We've defaulted to coal at this point. Oil won't last. Nuclear still faces opposition. Natural gas will run out as well. I'm not fond of coal. I think we should admit this is what we are doing and ask if it is worth the costs. If not we ought to accelerate the development of technology to enable better alternatives.

Engineer-Poet said at December 30, 2005 9:53 PM:

There are plenty of people who want to live off-grid and have access to a stream with a substantial drop, so they use microhydro.  The units are small and simple, and appear to be very reliable.  Rather simple mechanisms like Coanda screens keep trash from clogging or damaging the turbine.

The units are still not as cheap and reliable as they could be; because they are produced in very low volume, obvious advances aren't applied to them.  For instance, some units employ automotive alternators with permanent-magnet rotors (simple retrofits), but there is no commercial cycloconverter to maximize power generation at a given flow.  Nor are servo-controlled nozzles commercially available at small sizes, despite the common use of motors of reasonable size for many other purposes like windshield wipers.

aa2 says that microhydro devastates streams.  I don't see how; small wiers which are allowed to go dry when flows drop and run-of-the-stream turbines just wouldn't have those effects.

There are probably tens or hundreds of thousands of sites around the US which could produce a few hundred watts to a few tens of kilowatts.  We're just not using them.  We should look at them more carefully.

Bob Badour said at December 31, 2005 9:04 AM:

It occurs to me that with the coming advances in genetic engineering, it won't be long before someone invents a yeast or bacterium that produces liquid fuels as a byproduct of fermentation or an algae that produces liquid fuels from photosynthesis.

Engineer-Poet said at December 31, 2005 12:22 PM:

There's already the UNH algal biodiesel group, but the prospect of actually getting that level of productivity on a large scale seems small.

Bob Badour said at December 31, 2005 3:33 PM:


Why do you say the probability is small? I would say the probability of getting a euphoric drug that doubles as a liquid fuel from yeast is improbable, but we got that without any genetic engineering at all.

Engineer-Poet said at December 31, 2005 4:27 PM:

You're comparing a priori and a posteriori evaluations.  Nobody's tried running even one hectare of algal biodiesel farm year in and year out yet, and the realities of biological contamination give no cause for optimism.

aa2 said at January 1, 2006 2:55 PM:

Devastating the streams might have been over stating it by me, but there is no doubt there is going to be an affect on them. Even just building in roads to maintain the micro-plants is going to have an impact.

Philip Sargent said at January 4, 2006 6:32 AM:

Could this article be added to the "Energy" sublist?

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