Increase Your Energy IQ: New Hydropower Technologies for the 21st Century

January 19, 2018

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Energy Talks: Advanced Research, Nuclear Energy, Water Power

Alejandro Moreno, Director of the Water Power Technologies Office, recently spoke at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) speaker series, Energy Talks. Modeled after TED Talks, Energy Talks feature 10–20-minute presentations from energy specialists at DOE. Moreno presented on new hydropower technologies for the 21st century, including the existing fleet, international projects, hydropower attributes, pumped-storage hydropower (PSH), and evolving new hydropower opportunities.

Below are a few key takeaways:

Hydropower is a critical element of U.S. infrastructure, providing low-cost electricity for more than 100 years.

  • The existing fleet covers 2,000 projects nationwide with a capacity of 80 gigawatts (GW) and can grow an additional 6.3 GW by 2050.
  • Hydropower provides more than 87,000 jobs across 49 states and has a strong U.S. manufacturing base, with more than 170 companies spread across 35 states producing hydropower components.

As one of the most flexible generation sources, hydropower’s value to the U.S. power grid is increasing.

  • As the grid evolves in the 21st century, hydropower will be increasingly valued for its ability to respond quickly to disturbances in the grid and be dispatched on demand.
  • Hydropower technologies and operations will need to adapt to this changing model of operations, as many hydropower plants were designed to be optimized while providing constant, instead of flexible, generation outputs. Additional modeling of the value and long-term costs of essential grid reliability services provided by hydropower and PSH also is critical to developing these new technologies and operational strategies.
  • New and innovative PSH technologies are evolving to keep the grid reliable and flexible—including new smaller PSH projects and others that use seawater as the lower reservoir, dramatically expanding the geographic opportunities for large-scale storage.
  • Hydropower’s flexibility means it can help ensure power supply and quality even when high levels of variable power sources are on the grid. When countries run most or all of their power systems on renewable energy, it is often enabled by significant hydropower resources. 

There are opportunities for new hydropower and using existing hydropower in new ways.

  • There is about 3.8 GW of small hydropower capacity in the United States from more than 1,700 plants—and DOE’s Hydropower Vision report showed the potential for nearly 30 GW more, with much of that potential from powering nonpowered dams. Only 3% of the nation’s dams are used to generate electricity. Existing hydropower infrastructure like nonpowered dams have potential to grow 12 GW by 2050.
  • In order for new small hydropower to grow, however, novel approaches—such as standardized modular designs—are needed to reduce costs, make installation easier, and continue to improve environmental impacts.
  • Hydropower can grow and change without negatively impacting sustainability. New environmentally-friendly technologies can improve outcomes and reduce the time and costs of licensing.

The presentation is available on DOE’s Youtube channel.