In 2014, as the single largest source of renewable power in the US, hydropower accounted for more than 50% of all renewable generation – 6.5% of the country’s total electric production. However, in sharp contrast to these rousing figures, is the growing realisation that for the past 15 years US hydropower generation has almost flat lined with less than a 2% total increase. With power supplies being affected by fluctuating water supplies, data from the Energy Information Administration shows a 3.7% decrease in conventional hydro generation during 2014.

The stark reality is that the amount of hydropower being installed each year is at a minimal level, in spite of the fact that recent legislative reform has helped to improve the efficiency and simplicity of regulatory approvals required for projects. However vast untapped potential does exists for further small hydropower development across the US. The key to this lies within existing infrastructure.

While the National Hydropower Association has previously highlighted that only 3% of the US’ 80,000 dams include provision for hydropower, the Department of Energy suggests that an additional 12,000MW of capacity could be sought from existing non-powered dams. Indeed with more than 400B gallons of water flowing through existing agricultural, industrial and power pipelines each year, there is ample of opportunity to recapture excess energy available in the country’s water distribution system. The economic benefits of utilising this surplus power include:

  • Helping to lower energy costs for water operators who are ranked among some of the US’ leading consumers of power – they currently account for 5% of national electricity consumption.
  • Creating over 60,000 new jobs.
  • Developing emissions-free power for more than 4M US homes.

In an effort to highlight innovative policies required to make this happen, a new report has been released by a partnership between the Hydro Research Foundation and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, supported by the US Department of Energy. This New Hydropower Innovation Collaboration authored Blue Gold: Building New hydropower with Existing Infrastructure which has been championed by both the hydropower and environmental communities.

"The nation’s existing infrastructure for storing and transporting water — including existing dams, canals and pipelines — presents an enormous, largely-untapped opportunity for development of new hydropower," said the Hydro Research Foundation’s Executive Director Deborah Linke.

Re-iterating the fact that US hydropower has tremendous growth potential, Executive Director of the National Hydropower Association, Linda Church Ciocci, said: "The Blue Gold report recommends common-sense policy reforms to jumpstart the development of additional hydropower on existing infrastructure throughout the nation."
Indeed, John Seebach from American Rivers applauded the report’s recommendation for generating clean energy without the need for any new dams or water diversions from existing natural waterways.

Policy recommendations

The consensus policy recommendations from the Blue Gold report were developed during a 2014 meeting convened by the Hydro Research Foundation to discuss policy reforms needed to accelerate the development of hydropower. If state and federal policymakers implemented these the report says that they "can unleash new hydropower development – providing substantial economic and environmental benefits – without building a single new dam or changing any existing diversions from natural waterways". Proposed action includes:

  • Streamlining US Army Corps of Engineers permitting processes for hydro development so projects can complete federal approvals expeditiously – an overlapping of federal review requirements has hindered hydro development as approval is sometimes required by both FERC and the Corps.
  • Increasing federal procurement of hydropower by including distributed hydropower as an eligible resource type – new guidance should be issued to alleviate the systematic exclusion of hydropower.
  • Excluding small (under 5MW) conduit hydropower projects from having to file with FERC for projects which entail no changes in water diversion from an existing natural waterway.
  • Reauthorising sections of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 on the hydro incentive payments programme and provide ongoing appropriations.
  • Coordinating Federal and State environmental and permitting processes for hydropower.
  • Adding hydropower as an eligible project type to existing state loan and grant programmes for water infrastructure – The 8MW hydro project at Ridgway dam in Colorado was completed in June 2014 and made possible by US$15M in 2% loan funding provided by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Such funding in Colorado is reported to have fuelled a flurry of new hydro development which includes almost 30MW of new construction recently completed or currently underway.

Getting built

Earlier in 2015, the New Hydropower Innovation Collaborative published another report entitled New Pathways for Hydropower: Getting Hydropower Built — What Does It Take?, where 31 technological innovations to accelerate the deployment of new hydropower in the US were outlined. Although the focus of the report is new small hydropower, many of the ideas are said to be applicable to hydropower development in general.

The report is described as an ideas book – a compilation of ideas from knowledgeable individuals about which technology approaches, practices and prospective new tools or developments could help bring additional small hydropower projects from the realm of ideas to reality.

The ideas are grouped into eight categories:

  • Improved Tools for Siting, Prequalification, and Feasibility Determination
  • New and Improved Design Tools — Guidelines and Standards
  • Improved Access to Design-related Information — Online Toolboxes and Databases
  • New Hydropower-Specific Education, Training, and Outreach
  • Advanced and Improved Technology, Materials, and Manufacturing
  • Standardised and Modular Designs
  • New and Improved Electrical Standards and Practices
  • Tools for Commissioning, Operation, and Maintenance

"The ideas in this report, if implemented, have the potential to greatly reduce deployment cost and time through efficient designs, manufacturing, permitting and licensing, installation, commissioning, operations, and maintenance," said Deborah Linke. "This is an exciting compilation of ideas from an experienced group of well-regarded industry professionals with deep knowledge of what it takes to envision and complete a successful project," she continued.

This article was compiled from the following reports which can be downloaded at
Blue Gold: Building New Hydropower with Existing Hydropower. Hydro Research Foundation. April 2015.
New pathways for Hydropower: Getting Hydropower Built – What Does it Take? Oak Ridge National Laboratory. January 2015