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US fails to harness hydro power potential

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One of the more interesting types of green energy is hydroelectric power. Among green energy sources, hydroelectric power is second only to nuclear power in terms of generation capacity. In many respects hydroelectric plants are something like a miniature version of nuclear power plants; they are costly to put up but once they are built, they last for decades providing power at close to zero marginal cost. Yet despite their effectiveness, hydroelectric power plants have not garnered the kind of focus that wind turbines and solar arrays do.

Hydroelectric plants represent an intriguing opportunity to generate more energy without increasing carbon output. In particular, there are a significant number of existing dams at rivers across the U.S. where hydroelectric power is not being used. The U.S. Department of Energy did a study suggesting that up to 12 gigawatts of additional power could be generated simply by taking advantage of these existing plants. Beyond that proverbial low hanging fruit, there is a significant amount of construction activity around building new dams and hydro plants; over 600 dams are currently under construction with several thousand more planned for the future.

Most of these new hydro power plants are being built outside the U.S. though. Like nuclear power plants, hydroelectric plants have gone out of vogue in the U.S. it would seem. The U.S. has plenty of opportunities to add to hydroelectric capacity as the DoE study demonstrates, yet little is being done on this front. In theory hydroelectric power could be a threat to the explosive trend towards greater natural gas use (and the associated phase out of coal power). Yet there is no indication that utility companies are looking to switch away from gas or any other source and towards hydroelectric in large quantities.

Fans of hydroelectric power talk about expanding its portion of the aggregate generation capacity in the U.S., but even for hydro-bulls, this is a very slow process that might see hydroelectric power double its share of generating capacity over the course of several decades. That growth trajectory pales in comparison to the level of growth in wind and solar (albeit off a much smaller base of installed capacity for the latter sources).The limited interest in hydroelectric plants might be for a couple of reasons. First, it is not a source of energy that many environmentalists are excited about. Criticsderide its effects on river ecosystems, the fish it kills, the potential flooding of areas around newly built dams, and even the simple impact on views of rivers. Second and arguably more importantly, hydroelectric power seems to be being held back by its upfront capital cost. While hydroelectric power plants are far less expensive than nuclear plants to build, they are still very costly and entail extensive permits. A study by the EIA showed that conventional hydroelectric capital costs per kw were close to three times as expensive as a comparable natural gas project.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the decarbonization of the U.S. over the last 15 years is how wrong many pundits were when making predictions about the future of energy. Rather than clean energy sources like solar, wind, and ethanol helping to lower carbon output, the process has largely been driven by the switch from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas. This has been driven not by a desire to help the environment, but instead by the profit motive of utility companies. As long as hydroelectric plant costs remain uncompetitive with conventional sources, it’s likely the resource will remain underutilized going forward.


30 Comments on "US fails to harness hydro power potential"

  1. Newfie on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 5:46 pm 

    Forget about it. Climate change is drying up rivers worldwide. And it’s hard to take anyone seriously that uses the term “going forward”. The arrow of time points in one direction.

  2. theedrich on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 5:48 pm 

    Lack of hydro = unicorn thinking.  Nowadays, concern about the future is not a major part of the American Way, if it ever was.  Bribe-ocrats at any level cannot be expected to be bothered about what the citizenry will need decades hence.  Ethanol, windmills and Solyndra-types get taxpayer money in the present moment because they seem to offer quick and easy bennies.  In contrast, hydroelectric dams, even with fish ladders and other eco-protection additions, are not only costly but can be attacked by the fashionistas of ecotopia.  So why bother?  Après nous, le déluge.  Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow …

  3. apneaman on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 5:59 pm 

    Glaciers, BC Hydro’s Melting ‘Batteries’
    Scientists are trying to figure out how rising temps will change the alpine run-off that helps power the province.

    Glacier melt in B.C. mountains reaches ‘shocking’ levels
    See for yourself how quickly the Castle Creek glacier is melting — and what it means for the future

    How Western Canada glaciers will melt away

  4. Anonymous on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 6:05 pm 

    Doesn’t’ the ‘homeland’ already have a problem with a lot of its current hydro dams not being properly maintained? I know I read a few articles that discussed how poorly maintained and funded a lot of its current ones are. Which of course leads on to ask the obvious question. If the ones the US has now are being indifferently or haphazardly maintained, how will building new ones change matters any?

    If you do even a cursory look at this issue, it would be impossible to conclude that the US is ‘failing to harness hydro at all’. The opposite seems to be the case. But the tabloidy, often fact-challenged outfits like USA Today seem to have no problems coming to a conclusion that seems totally inverted from reality.

  5. Davy on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 6:19 pm 

    Dams in North America at least are either looking at expensive overhauls or decommissioning. New hydro capacity is limited by good sites but mostly from environmental considerations. I would go so far as to say no major new dams will EVER be built in the US again. It is not only environmental considerations it is scale of time and money. We are close to a rapidly deflating global economy that will be unable to support huge projects like multi year hydro development. One area that shows promise is micro hydro but the total capacity of micro hydro would not even be worth mentioning in relation to total hydro figures.

  6. BobInget on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 6:20 pm 

    Threw out America’s West there’s a movement to tear out dams built in the last century. Out cheer salmon is the holy grail.

    Despite all man’s best efforts dams are killin
    our fish populations. Ten years back there was an underground formed to blow-up the most offending damns.
    Coffee and bear talk, no damns were ever
    destroyed by private hands.

    Funny how things work out even in the lifetime of a single salmon.

    We all thought we would need that hydro power, the main reason for keeping damns in place. Then along comes twin crisis of climate change and way too much natural gas. (gas sells for a third of what it did 30 years ago)

    Not a single Republican Presidential candidate will admit to believing in anthropogenic climate change, reflecting views of many here in the PNW.
    It’s fish over damns on both political sides.

  7. Hawkcreek on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 7:52 pm 

    I recently visited the Elwha dam in Washington state. I learned a lot about how it was built by commercial interests, only provided partial power for a local paper mill, and still managed to screw up the fish migration routes. It was removed with the costs borne by the taxpayers, naturally, and the river and the fish are doing much better now. Beautiful place to visit, on the Olympic Peninsula.
    Dams have much greater costs to the environment than most people realize.

  8. makati1 on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 9:04 pm 

    Hydroelectric’s time has come and gone. At least in most places of the world. The good sites are already used or too valuable to drown.

    In the Us, the old reservoirs are filling up with sediment and the structures are failing, as was mentioned above. There is no money left over after the Us war’s of choice and bread and circus to the sheeple to keep them from cleaning house in DC and hanging the elite.

    New nuke plants take years to complete and many started now will never see any fuel. The coming collapse and war will end all long term plans. Prep now, tomorrow may be too late.

  9. F.F.K.H. on Sat, 28th Nov 2015 11:45 pm 

    Recognizing that some dams are indeed most harmful to the environment, what about building a series of dams up and down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers at say 20 mile intervals?

  10. makati1 on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 12:26 am 

    Speaking of hydro power…

    Receding Lake Mead poses challenges to Hoover Dam’s power output

    “In a pinch, Cook and his team “can push the full amount [of water] through at any given point in time” in an emergency — such as if the 3,875 MW Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona went offline. “But we don’t have the water to do it on a long-term basis.”

    Where the power plant once produced more than 4 billion kWh a year, that output was 3.7 billion kWh in 2009 and has been slipping since.?

  11. meshpal on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 2:40 am 

    Currently live in a village in Southern Germany and we have lots of micro generators along the main river. They are about the size of a small house. These are spaced every 2 or 3 kilometres and are fed with only about half of a river that gets diverted and drops back down into the main stream. Not more than a 3 metre drop. In the middle ages, they were water wheels running saw mills. I think we generate about 5% of our own power. I mean, hey . . . every little bit counts. I have never seen these in the US; everything there is big.

    And BTW, in our house we have an electric stove that we never use since our electricity is so expensive – we need to cook with propane (wood in the winter); we have an oil furnace that should heat the house, but we use wood and coal instead . . . until now oil was too expensive. All the lights are LEDs now. And just put up solar, but still need to sort the storage battery thing out. I am trying to regulate voltage by dynamic loading – we’ll see about that.

    It is crazy that in a lot of ways we are going back to the time of our grandparents.

    PS – Our high electricity rates are do to green energy and lots of government. I mean we do need to support our many, many overseas guests that keep arriving here daily from the middle east and Africa. You can not beat our offer: Free Everything for life, health care, retirement, you name it. For your children too. All our welcome! Our government loves you – but too bad for us. We are just slaves.

  12. Kenz300 on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 4:39 am 

    Climate Change, declining fish stocks, droughts, floods, pollution, water and food shortages all stem from the worlds worst environmental problem……. OVER POPULATION.

    Yet the world adds 80 million more mouths to feed, clothe, house and provide energy and water for every year… this is unsustainable… If you can not provide for yourself you can not provide for a child.

    Birth Control Permanent Methods: Learn About Effectiveness

  13. makati1 on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 7:19 am 

    Meshpal, those small plants seem like a good idea, but they cannot produce enough to make a difference. In the US, it is illegal to even build a small stone dam to make a swimming hole for the kids on any stream.

    Yes, we are stepping back in time. At least the few of us who want to beat the collapse. I have lived long enough to go from wood stoves and outdoor toilets to the internet and microwaves. I can honestly say that my life was much better in the old days. I will likely see the end of the internet and microwave and all other unnecessary junk that some believe to be necessities. Good luck with your preps.

    BTW: Electric here in Manila is about US $0.25/KwH at the present, but it has topped $0.30/Kwh at times.

  14. Davy on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 7:22 am 

    First FFKH is money. It could be done if we had the money. Second you would bury a huge expanse of highly productive farm land. You would disrupt a system that is vast and significant. More dams on the great rivers would make worse an already difficult situation with flood control. If anything these rivers need to be left alone and we need to learn to live with their natural cycles instead of building dams and levees.

    I had a 1000 acre farm in the Missouri River bottoms. Of the 4 years I had the farm 3 had near flood events with water lapping at the top of my levees. Before that experience I had a rental house in the Missouri river bottoms that was flooded in the 95 flood. I have lived with floods and they are a profound power of nature that humbles you. Your thought is one typical of the hubris we are habituated to in modern life. We must end these ideas and begin living with nature not controlling her. This is especially true now that climate is destabilizing and our global world is decaying

  15. Davy on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 7:25 am 

    Mak said “In the US, it is illegal to even build a small stone dam to make a swimming hole for the kids on any stream.” Mak that is an outright lie. You are a liar.

  16. makati1 on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 7:35 am 

    F.F.K.H. and how many hundreds of square miles of farmland would those dams on the Mississippi cover over with water? Remember that water rises to the level of the dam and will cover a large area in flat land. Not to mention how many cities and towns are along that same river at those levels.

    BTW: The Mississippi River is less than 500 feet above sea level at St.Louis.
    Not much of a drop to dam and use. Not to mention that it is the main shipping route for the Midwest. No dams allowed.

    Pittsburgh, PA to St Louis only adds another 300 feet to the total fall.

    Minneapolis, MN to St.Louis is only ~240 feet more than at St Louis. Less altitude than that from Pittsburgh.

    At 20 mile intervals, the dams could only be about 2 feet high.

  17. shortonoil on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 9:09 am 

    “Mak said “In the US, it is illegal to even build a small stone dam to make a swimming hole for the kids on any stream.” Mak that is an outright lie. You are a liar.”

    In the state of Vermont, and other states that have passed similar environmental legislation, to build a permanent dam on a stream that flows year round requires an Act 250 permit. Presently to comply would cost better than $100,000. Also, if it is a year round stream the water rights to that stream were probably sold by the state to a utility companies many, many years ago. Even if a stream runs across a property, the owner of the land does not own the water. The owner of the water rights owns it.

  18. Davy on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 9:42 am 

    Short, laws vary by state. In Missouri our laws are related to a navigable stream and impoundments. On my farm in the late 40’s a branch of a much larger river had 3 small earth dams constructed on it There are other branches I could dam if I chose. I am a stream team member and a member of American Rivers. I know a lot about rivers because it used to be a passion. Now I am into farming but still respect rivers highly.

  19. farmlad on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 10:45 am 

    According to an article in our local paper a few years ago. As I remember, it said that of the 20 or so dams in our county only one is producing electricity, even though a number of them had at one time. Said that of all the dams, including others on the same river, only the one that produces electricity has to do an expensive, full environmental study every so many years.

    And I remember one incident where the owners of another dam drained the whole thing leaving a muddy mess for a while. I was told, they did it to protest all the red tape, etc, of producing electricity, which they discontinued at the same time.

    This kind of bullshit only speeds up the demise of our nation.

  20. penury on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 10:58 am 

    Davy you are correct “Laws vary by state” the problem arises when you find that the rules are created by EPA and adopted by states. Enforcement varies by jurisdiction however, you should check with the MDA, and read some silly restrictions on stream water control. How close can you pasture your cows to the stream” How much and when can you apply manure to the land? These and more are in the rules.

  21. Davy on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 11:23 am 

    Our rules in Missouri favor land owners within reason. Everyone knows our rivers and forest are vital for tourism yet farms are just as important. There has been a strong movement to get cattle out of the rivers. For the most part farmers are accepting these changes if the government will assist with programs to protect streams.

    I am in a program as we speak. I am putting in cattle water devices that get water from a well to keep cattle out of my streams and lakes. I agree some areas of the country experience conflicting rules and burdensome requirements. This is getting worse in many cases.

  22. meshpal on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 2:50 pm 

    makati1, I lived in the Philippines for 3 years in Dumaguete – in the south – the place was not too big and not too small. I was just not that comfortable in Manila. But after more travel, I determined that for me the best place was Thailand. For some unknown reason, I could integrate into their business community: I have a lot of skills in marketing – they enjoyed taking those. Also, being a Western man, I have a very broad technical base that is lacking in Asia. There was hardly a topic that I could not add value. The Asian guys tends to know one thing well – that’s it. I also was used as a creditability builder in several business situations – a bit silly. Once even taken to an illegal trade; did not really want that. Thailand was also cheaper and has a higher standard of living that I enjoyed a lot. Drinking and smoking is more expensive there, but I don’t do that. The food is a lot better and the language problem is not that bad since if you know about 200 Thai words, you can do just about anything. I could make myself understood with my very poor Thai language skills but I could almost never understand what they said. The one problem is that in polite Thai society, there is competition for family-oriented Western men. Polite Thai women are strong and compete with each other over desirable men. Well, as they say, I can handle anything “except pain and temptation.” So it is better that I am not there in that one aspect.
    Enjoy the warm weather in Manila and take care.

  23. makati1 on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 7:27 pm 

    meshpal, I like Thailand also, but chose the Philippines as it is an island country not land tied to China. One of many considerations in my move. I am just glad to be out of the States.

    It is 88F and sunny today, here in the land of eternal summer. Take care.

  24. Pete Bauer on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 7:52 pm 

    China generated 1061 TWh of Hydro electricity in 2014 while USA generated 261 TWh.

    Both the countries are almost the same size and the # of mountains and rivers are also the same.

    USA can generate lot of power from Hydro sources. Unfortunately many fossil fuel companies will oppose the hydro power so that they can keep supplying the fuels.

    If this continues, China could generate electricity lot more cleaner than USA.

    Note: China’s 3 Gorges Dam at 25 GW is the World’s largest hydro power plant.

  25. Davy on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 8:14 pm 

    Pete, China has destroyed its natural heritage. Part of that destruction is associated with all the dams and the damage done. I think the US is way ahead in that department.

  26. makati1 on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 9:40 pm 

    Heritage? The US has no heritage left.

    “Nuclear crossroad: California reactors face uncertain future”
    “New Alaskan strip coal mine for China, there go the salmon”
    “The Videos Are In: US Shoppers Go Wild, Beat Each Other Up To Celebrate Black Friday Sales”
    “Laquan McDonald Shooting: Protesters Disrupt Black Friday Shopping in Downtown Chicago”
    “US Steel To Lay Off Thousands Of Workers”
    “As costs, mishaps mount, U.S. nuke industry weighs extending aging reactor lives up to 80 years”
    “EPA asks court to withdraw registration of Dow herbicide”
    “‘Mind-Blowing Abuse of Power’: Walmart Spied on Workers With FBI, Lockheed Martin’s Help”
    “The Real Thanksgiving Day”
    “Why Even a Modest Disruption Will Shatter the Status Quo”
    “Why The Obamacare Exchanges Are Failing”
    “Thanksgiving not popular for all Americans, especially the original inhabitants”
    “Donald Trump Encourages People to Spy on Their Neighbors — And then report them to the police”
    “Rubio: God’s Rules Trump Supreme Court Decisions”
    “Exposed: Hillary Caught Coordinating With CNN to Smear Rand Paul”
    “Scientists: Ted Cruz Understands Less About Climate Than A Kindergartner”

    And on and on about ‘American Heritage’. LOL

  27. penury on Sun, 29th Nov 2015 10:05 pm 

    Mak the major problem is the US. is bankrupt but, kept afloat by the “Reserve Currency status: there appears tp be a major concern that the addition of the yuan to the SDR will have an extremely negative effect of the dollar, In the meantime the Congress has approved another 500 million for training “moderate terrorists in Syria”
    Forbive my spelling but what we used to say about things like this was “Maboting Copolarum”. By the way my speaking is even worse. (i.e. for anyone interested that is supposed to be “Good Luck”).

  28. theedrich on Mon, 30th Nov 2015 3:41 am 

    Hawkcreek, since you have visited the Elwha dam in Washington State, you should also visit the State fish hatchery in the pseudo-Bavarian town of Leavenworth in the Cascades.  They produce immense amounts of Salmon every year and have no adverse impact on the environment.  The hysteria about salmon dying off is typical hogwash by bored liberals with too much money and time on their hands and no raison d’être.

    Washington also has the Grand Coulee dam, which supplies virtually the entire state with electricity, and in addition about a third of its generated power goes down to Los Angeles to help light up that city.  What would all the liberal Angelinos do without that power to support their anti-White leftism?

  29. Davy on Mon, 30th Nov 2015 7:08 am 

    Come on Thee, have you read the history books about what the Salmon runs once were? Please spare me the laughter on state fish hatcheries and there utility. That’s like using a band aid when a tunicate is needed. Dams are one of the most grotesque of man-made constructions. We destroy rivers that are our very lifeline to nature. Water and its delivery is the most vital of nature’s gifts to man and look what modern man has done to those resources. Grand Coulee is a grand example of death. Someone should paint the skull and bones on that dam in huge letters. We are stuck with this horror so we will have to live with it but let’s not glorify it,

  30. energyskeptic on Mon, 30th Nov 2015 1:51 pm 

    12 GW is a drop in the bucket compared to how many dams will silt up (or dry up) and stop generating power over the rest of this century. Opposition is strong, here’s something I received from Friends of the River recently (Governor Brown is trying to reach his Renewable Portfolio Standard with more hydropower):
    TAKE ACTION: Protect Rivers from bad dams! Write your Congressional Rep. Today!
    Your voice is urgently needed to protect rivers. The House of Representatives is getting ready to hear a bill (H.R. 8, The North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015) that will take away local control, circumvent environmental protection laws, and consolidate authority in a Washington, D.C. agency with neither the skill nor expertise necessary to manage natural resources. Please help by writing or calling your Congressional representative today and asking them to oppose this bill.
    H.R. 8, a measure crafted by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) and the National Hydropower Association to cripple the voices of Federal natural resources and land managers and the states in the licensing and relicensing of non-Federal dams, is now expected to be voted on in December. Everyone’s Congressional representative will have a chance to stand up for rivers when this comes up for a full House vote, but potentially the most important Congressman on this one is Stockton’s Jerry McNerney. He carried key amendments sought by PG&E in committee. Getting Jerry to reverse course would send a message to PG&E that folks are not being fooled or they can’t stay fooled for long.
    Please ACT NOW! Write or call your Congressional representative today and tell them to oppose this bill.

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