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Hydropower Technology Development

Hydroelectric power is the largest source of renewable electricity in the United States, producing about 6.3% of the nation's total electricity throughout the last decade. Even after a century of proven experience with this reliable renewable resource, significant opportunities still exist to expand the nation's hydropower resources through non-powered dams, water conveyance systems, pumped storage hydropower, and new site development. The Water Power Program supports the hydropower industry and complements existing investments through the development and deployment of new technologies and key components, as well as by identifying key opportunity areas through which hydropower generation can be enhanced.

In addition to conventional hydropower, pumped-storage hydropower is an important piece of DOE's renewable energy portfolio because it acts as utility-scale grid storage technology. The Water Power Program can play an essential and catalytic role in demonstrating the benefits of pumped-storage hydropower as a part of our clean energy future—acting as a renewable form of grid stabilization and enabler for the high penetration of variable renewables (such as wind and solar). A U.S. Department of Energy 2015 report to Congress outlines key activities that can help accelerate pumped-storage development in the United States. 

With more than 2,500 U.S. companies supporting the hydropower industry, adding additional hydropower generation will create a large and enduring economic benefit by revitalizing the domestic manufacturing and hydropower industry.

Learn more about the Water Power Program's work in the following areas of hydropower technology development:

Low-Head Hydropower

There is a significant opportunity across the country to add new hydropower generating capabilities at low-head sites (i.e., those that operate with a change in elevation ranging from 2 to 20 meters). These types of waterways are often present at existing non-powered dams, canals, and conduits across diverse areas of the United States. The Water Power Program is investing in innovative low-head hydropower technology R&D, such as Percheron Power’s installation of the nation’s first Archimedes Hydrodynamic Screw system. This project demonstrated that the low-head technology is simple, robust, and economical.

Materials and Manufacturing

The Water Power Program funds R&D to identify and test new materials and manufacturing techniques to improve the performance and lower the costs of hydropower. Program-funded research focuses on materials or coatings that reduce the life-cycle cost of turbine runners, draft tubes, and penstocks. R&D also focuses on identifying and testing ways to improve generator efficiency and reliability.

Hydropower Systems

The Water Power Program works to develop and test new technologies and techniques that can reduce operations and maintenance costs; increase unit availability and plant capacity factors; reduce risk through enhanced system reliability; and improve the quality—environmental performance attributes, as well as ancillary power benefits—of the energy produced. Areas of focus include water-use optimization, the application of advanced materials and manufacturing methods, and the assessment of the value of water power grid services. For example, existing hydropower facilities in the United States show signs of deterioration, and the data used to evaluate these facilities are scattered and outdated. The Water Power Program is working with partners to integrate and update information in order to understand the declines in electricity generation, capacity factors, and facility availability.

Technology Development Accomplishments

The program has numerous accomplishments in hydropower technology development. The projects described below highlight just a few of the program's new opportunities and recent successes in cost reductions, water-use optimization, and facility upgrades.

New Opportunities for Advanced Hydropower R&D

In 2011, after revamping its hydropower technology efforts, the Water Power Program released its first major solicitation for hydropower R&D in more than a decade. These projects aim to reduce costs of hydropower technologies and demonstrate the dynamic grid benefits of advanced hydropower and pumped storage technologies. For example, Natel Energy, in consultation with Alden Research Laboratory, designed, built, and commissioned a reliable powertrain for the Schneider Linear hydroEngine™. By reducing capital and maintenance costs, this powertrain enables the development of new low-head hydropower capacity—achieving levelized-cost-of-energy savings of around $2 per megawatt hour. Learn more about Natel Energy’s project and others in the Hydropower Projects Report.

Optimizing Hydropower Systems for Power and Environment

Photo of a hydropower plant located on a river with grassy hills around it.The Water Power Program sponsored a team of U.S. national laboratories to develop and demonstrate a suite of advanced, integrated analytical tools, known as the Water-Use Optimization Toolset (WUOT). WUOT assists managers and operators with operating their hydropower plants more efficiently, resulting in more energy and grid services from available water resources, thus enhancing the environmental benefits from improved hydropower operations and planning. WUOT includes tools for hydrologic forecasting, seasonal hydro-systems analysis, day-ahead scheduling, real-time operations, and environmental performance operations. The following locations are deploying WUOT for demonstration:

  • The Oroville Complex on the Feather River in California
  • The upper Colorado River portion of the Colorado River Storage Project
  • The Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River in Maryland.
Revitalizing American Infrastructure

Photo of a turbine inside of a power plant.Sponsored through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Water Power Program completed three hydropower efficiency projects with overwhelming success—resulting in an increase of more than 3,000 megawatt-hours per year.

  • The Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities installed a low-flow turbine to its Abiquiu Hydroelectric Facility in New Mexico. The new turbine boosts overall facility output from 13.8 megawatts to 16.8 megawatts.
  • The City of Boulder in Colorado completed a modernization project to its Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Project by installing a new turbine/generator unit. The new unit resulted in a 30% increase in generation and an 18%–48% increase in turbine efficiency.
  • The City of Tacoma installed two Francis turbine/generator units to the Cushman Dam in Washington. The new units add approximately 3.6 megawatts of annual electrical generation.