In the United States, traditional hydropower (dams) provides roughly 10% of the electricity. Traditional hydro plants, in many cases, are century+ old with embedded technology that is far from 21st century in terms of productivity for every gallon that passes by. Thus, opportunities exist for taking existing hydropower facilities and making them more productive with the existing water resources. And, there are literally 1000s of dams and spillways across the country that do not have existing electricity production. But, modernization operations can cost millions and take years to go through regulatory processes to seek to minimize environmental impacts (or, in the case of old facilities, perhaps to reduce environmental impact). The hydro industry often comments that the hydro regulatory process is more difficult than nuclear power’s.
Is there, however, an opportunity for getting a quick 3-7% increase at existing hydropower facilities and to put electricity production at some non-power producing dam sites with a far easier regulatory process, low per kilowatt installation costs (with, then, near free fuel), and do so quickly? Until yesterday, at WIREC, the options didn’t really seem apparent. Now, however, my head is whirling with the possibilities.
Hyrdo Green Energy has developed a hydro-kinetic power system that can be placed in-stream for generating power, for example, along rivers without the massive installation requirements of a dam and, thus, minimal implications on the river’s natural flow. Their approach got some attention a couple years ago and seemed quite Energy COOL at the time. They mount their system on a barge, lowering the turbine into the water, rather than building from the river bottom (or damning the river), and generate power from the river’s current. The barge enables moving the system (as it makes sense or is required) and also provides a platform for any required maintenance. Hmm. This looked of real interest as a way to quickly establish power generation on rivers around the world at relatively low cost and in a distributed fashion.
A specific application of their technology, one that they are actively pursuing for a test program in Minnesota, seems potentially quite valuable as some Silver Dust to help change the energy equation. Rather than putting the system somewhere on a river, for example, independent of existing infrastructure, Hydro Green will be putting one of their systems in the spillway of an existing dam. What are some of the benefits of this approach?
It is reusing a resource, gaining more power from the water that has already generated power. This is a quick ‘boost’ to the plant’s energy efficiency.
The dam has existing infrastructure (such as transformers, power lines) that can be used to move the power ‘to market’.
Permitting processes are, as mentioned above, a real nightmare for hydro projects. As this is within a spillway, the licensing process is different, within the existing plant’s “capacity”, and thus lowering the cost/time for getting permitted. [Note: fast permitting isn’t necessarily “good”, but work through the negatives here. The only serious one (and it does matter) seems likely to be the potential impact on fish survivability for fish that have gone through the dam and are disoriented coming through the turbine. Thus, this merits better understanding and evaluation before this technology is deployed on a massive scale.]
If it works (as promised), this is a quite fast way to increase clean power production from existing facilities with (it seems on the first blush) minimal (if any) environmental impact.
They will be testing the system at an existing 4.4 mw plant and expect to see about 200 kilowatts of addition production. This is a 5.7% increase in the dam’s productivity.
Hmmm …. Multiple 5.7% by 95,000 megawatts and we’re talking some real power generation. Could Hydro Green (or similar) technology provide a path for 5+ gigawatts of additional green power over, let’s say, the next decade. (And, by the way, in a ‘mind spinning’ fasion, there is the consideration of what the implications for this technology would be for pumped hydro storage, which is generally discussed at 80-90% efficiency. Adding 5.7% more to that efficiency potentially helps make the wind/pumped hydro storage combination even more effective for displacing coal-fired electricity.) This isn’t a Silver Bullet to solve Global Warming and keep coal in the ground, but it is some nice Silver Dust to add to the pile for holistic solutions.
And, well, to add some more dust: could Hydro Green get deployed into the spillways of dams that don’t have existing electricity production. And, then, there is returning to their original ‘concept’, placing these barges in rivers in a distributed fashion, producing reliable clean power very close to the end user. Hmmm … how many gigawatts does this start to add up to?
Hydrokinetic power holds great promise as a new, carbon-free, low or no impact, domestic energy source. In fact, a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) found that the U.S. could develop at a minimum 13,000 megawatts of river and ocean-based hydrokinetic power by 2025. Earlier estimates by the Department of Energy (DOE) showed even greater potential and suggested that the U.S. might be able to double its existing hydropower output with the development of new technologies.
And, by the way, what about the global implications and global opportunities?
NOTE: Hydro Green is not the sole developer of hydro kinetic systems. For example, Hydrovolts is developing a product that could be used in a similar way, scalable from quite small systems up. This is in an earlier stage but is an interesting offshoot of a study looking at tidal power opportunities in the Tacoma area (and that determined that the opportunities were not cost efficient and potentially environmentally unacceptable to pursue). The Hydrovolts approach could turn out to be highly cost-competitive electricity, especially in distributed environments.