More than a century in, hydropower is only getting better. Turns out, old dogs can learn new tricks, and hydropower’s are arriving just in time. This flexible and reliable source of renewable power is an important part of the foundation needed to build a 100% clean energy future.

“This is not your grandfather’s hydropower,” said Tim Welch, hydropower program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO). “Today’s technologies can better protect the environment and even capitalize on the 97% of existing dams that don’t generate power, while pumped storage hydropower can store energy for when we need it.”

“It’s very exciting,” Welch continued, “to see this industry innovate and adapt to serve the nation’s transition to clean energy.”

Over the past couple years, researchers at national laboratories, companies, and academic institutions worked to advance environmentally sustainable hydropower and pumped storage technologies. In its recently published 2020–2021 Accomplishments Report, WPTO features a selection of promising hydropower advances.

Low-Impact Hydropower Could Make a Big Impact

Today, hydropower provides about 7% of the United States’ electricity and 37% of its renewable energy. Nearly every state uses it. This reliable and flexible source of clean energy can power the nation for years to come, but tomorrow’s hydropower will look different. New technologies (like fish-friendly turbines) and advanced manufacturing processes can support hydropower’s role on a clean energy grid while helping to protect vital ecosystems and to manufacture hydropower components more efficiently.

Further, while there are more than 90,000 dams in the United States, less than 3% produce power. In 2020–2021, WPTO funded projects to assess how to efficiently and cost-effectively add power to these existing resources, which could significantly increase the amount of clean energy from hydropower with minimal environmental impact.

People gather around large gray devices called ultracapacitors that are designed to store and deliver energy quickly.

In April 2021, Idaho National Laboratory and Idaho Falls Power performed first-of-a-kind tests to determine how the utility’s five small hydropower plants could provide electricity generation during regional grid disruptions. This required developing innovative hydropower controls and integrating energy storage technologies with the plants.

Photo courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory

Storing Water’s Power

Hydropower also offers flexibility to support and complement variable renewable energy sources, and pumped storage systems are one of the most scalable, cost-effective, and long-lived grid-scale storage assets now and likely in the future.

With that in mind, WPTO supported the creation of a guide and tool that can help developers and other stakeholders calculate the value of pumped storage hydropower and evaluate new or upgrade projects.

To understand how these resources can serve the future clean energy grid, WPTO also funded projects to analyze how hydropower and pumped storage facilities can:

Securing Modern Hydropower

As the hydropower industry finds new ways to support the clean energy grid, it is also critical to modernize and incorporate state-of-the-art capabilities into existing infrastructure. WPTO projects are helping to ensure modern hydropower remains secure and resilient and can continue to provide benefits to the grid.

For example, researchers elicited information from stakeholders to create digital models for hydropower systems. This will allow plant operators, equipment manufacturers, academics, and other stakeholders to optimize real-world plant operations, test potential operations, and use real-time data for fault diagnosis and systems health monitoring.

Better Knowledge To Better Protect the Environment

Hydropower plants are located in diverse environments, but significant knowledge gaps remain related to fish and wildlife biology, behavior, and specifically how species interact with hydropower facilities. That’s why WPTO funds work to improve environmental monitoring technologies and collect more accurate data to help developers identify and mitigate potential environmental impacts.

For example, WPTO funded the HydroPASSAGE project to provide information and tools to help engineers design systems that increase fish survival through turbines and other hydropower structures. Over the last year, the project team produced materials, such as best practices documents and instructional videos, and conducted customized workshops to engage with hydropower facility owners, turbine manufacturers, resource agencies, and other stakeholders.

Evaluating Hydropower’s Vast Value

Three young women experiment with electrical devices.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory collaborated with the National Energy Education Development Project to create a hydropower curriculum that helps primary, elementary, intermediate, and secondary students learn about the water cycle, kinetic energy transformations, and electricity.

Photo courtesy of the National Energy Education Development Project

While hydropower may be the country’s oldest form of electricity generation, publicly available and easily accessible data on the makeup, performance, costs, market participation, and regulatory best practices of the U.S. hydropower and pumped storage fleet has historically been limited. To help address this need, WPTO funded projects to enhance tools to help stakeholders better understand hydropower data, as well as to develop new tools to provide a systematic and transparent method for identifying the potential environmental impacts of a project.

At the same time, WPTO funded efforts to cultivate a modern hydropower workforce and inspire students and teachers through curricula and teacher trainings for science, technology, engineering, and math outreach. (Learn about the inaugural Hydropower Collegiate Competition launched earlier this month!)

Hydropower has a crucial role in helping the United States achieve a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035 and a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050. The projects featured in WPTO’s 2020–2021 Accomplishments Report, along with many more, are helping to advance hydropower and pumped storage systems to create a flexible, reliable grid.

Learn more about hydropower and explore additional hydropower accomplishments in the WPTO 2020–2021 Accomplishments Report. Stay up to date with the latest hydropower funding opportunities, events, and news by subscribing to the monthly Hydro Headlines and the bimonthly Water Wire newsletters.