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As dams come down, a look at new hydropower

As utilities are knocking out the dams across the Northwest, several federal agencies are investigating the potential for developing new hydropower at existing facilities across the country. The announcement from the Obama administration about grants for hydropower projects in the Northwest reminded me of a report that came out earlier this year listing 192 sites across the country that have the potential to deliver new or additional sources of hydropower.

There are a dozen in the Northwest, including existing dams that don’t currently produce hydroelectricity:

  • In Oregon: Wickiup Dam, Emigrant Dam, Haystack, McKay Dam, Arthur R. Bowman Dam, and Scoggins Dam
  • In Washington: Kachess Dam, Cle Elum Dam, Easton Diversion Dam, Keechelus Dam, Scootney Wasteway and Sunnyside Dam.

View New hydropower? in a larger map

The study also identified 52 canals and tunnels that the Bureau of Reclamation wanted to investigate further for low-head hydropower potential.

One quick note, as one commenter pointed out on the Think Out Loud blog, low-head hydro – which draws power from waterways that drop less than 30 feet – isn’t a new concept. But a smaller “head” makes for less efficient hydropower generation. The feds are now investing in new technologies that can make low-head hydro more efficient, more cost effective and more fish friendly. And that’s not the only kind of new hydropower the feds are looking at.

As U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydropower advisor Kerry McCalman told me: “We’re looking at what we can do with the stuff we already have. What’s out there that we can use to generate power?”

In March, the Bureau released the results of its review of 500 agency facilities. The study revealed an additional 225 megawatts of hydropower capacity in existing dams and irrigation systems – enough to serve about 400,000 customers – that could be developed cost-effectively and with minimal environmental impacts.

But the volume of power per facility is less important than the role it can play in the broader power mix, McCalman said. Additional hydropower would be especially helpful in serving “peak” power needs on the hottest days of the summer when everyone’s running their air conditioners and on the coldest days of the winter.

“The way hydro is typically marketed is to provide peaking energy,” he said. “So, the real benefit of this hydropower is it keeps the nation from having to build larger, usually fossil based resources to provide peaking energy. So by building hydropower we can offset a lot of energy production that would be more carbon based and prevent greenhouse gases. That’s there the real benefit of these facilities comes from.”

I asked McCalman who would develop this new hydropower, and whether they would get renewable energy credit for doing it.

He said it depends on the facility. In some cases, the Bureau has the authority to develop hydropower and would be looking to partner with a utility or private developer. In other cases, the developer will have to apply to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a permit.

There are already applications into FERC to add hydropower to three dams in Washington: Cle Elum, Kachess and Keechelus.

The Bureau’s facility review was initially launched in response to interest in new hydropower from non-federal entities – particularly irrigation districts. The agency is assuming the money to develop the hydro will come from other government agencies or the private sector. Renewable energy portfolio standards in Oregon grant credits for new hydropower, offering an incentive for utilities to look into some of the Bureau’s facilities.

“I think we’re seeing more interest in development in the states and regions that have put some focus on small hydro in their RPS,” McCalman said.

A second phase of the Bureau’s study of hydropower potential is focusing on canals. A report on the agency’s review of 400+ canals in 17 Western states should be out around the end of this year.

“We’ve built most of the large projects in the nation, so we’re really focusing on smaller hydropower, off-channel, canal drops and irrigation canals and conduits,” said McCalman. “Right now, hydropower is the largest renewable energy source in the United States. And there’s certainly more potential out there.”