Energy Department Gets Pumped Up for Pumped-Storage Hydropower

September 26, 2016

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Energy 101: Hydropower

An important step toward achieving U.S. hydropower goals set forth in the recent Hydropower Vision report is tied to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (EERE's) plans to invest nearly $10 million to develop innovative technologies that will reduce capital costs and deployment timelines for pumped-storage hydropower and non-powered dams.

Scores of public and private U.S.-based corporations are expected to compete for the available funding for up to 12 projects, spanning non-powered dam and pumped-storage technologies. EERE officials have signaled their intent to invest $4.8 million on eight projects focusing on existing non-powered dam development; $5 million is designated for four pumped-storage projects.

The goal of this funding announcement is to stimulate research and development in these two areas of the hydropower sector. Plans call for the selected project proposals to produce a design model, analyze and prove its prospective capacity, and then investigate its market viability.

Today, only 3% of the nation’s dams generate electricity.

Non-powered dam work involves the conversion of existing dams into electricity-generating dams by integrating turbine and electrical generator units into the existing infrastructure. The EERE funding opportunity calls for smaller modular standardized units that can operate interchangeably at various sites and can be installed in existing spaces within the frame of the dam rather than the traditional site-specific units that require supplementary construction. The project criteria includes a 20% reduction in capital costs associated with structure installation, while maintaining at least 80% power conversion efficiency.

Pumped-storage hydropower pumps water into higher-elevation reservoirs at times when there is a surplus of electricity and then releases that water into lower-elevation reservoirs to generate electricity when needed. Pumped-storage has the potential to increase the flexibility and stability of the U.S. electricity grid, as well as to support the integration of variable renewable resources like wind and solar.

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EERE’s work in the pumped-storage realm aims to develop an innovative system that includes adjustable speed pumps for varying electricity loads, closed-loop water sources for the protection of the river ecosystem, and smaller pump units for distribution on a more localized scale—all while maintaining an energy roundtrip efficiency of 70%.

Through this funding, EERE officials hope to develop and accelerate deployment of innovative hydropower technologies that lower costs, improve performance, and provide environmental stewardship. The Hydropower Vision report estimates that domestic hydropower could grow from 101 gigawatts to nearly 150 gigawatts of combined electricity generation and storage capacity by 2050.


Amped Up! Magazine is the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s publication that highlights breaking technologies and achievements in renewable power, energy efficiency and sustainable transportation that influence global change toward a clean energy economy.