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Hoover Dams For Lilliput: Does Small Hydroelectric Power Have a Future?

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the plenty-of-room-at-the-bottom dept.

Power 302

New submitter MatthewVD writes "Boing Boing's Maggie Koerth-Baker, author of Before The Lights Go Out, writes that the era of giant hydroelectric projects like the Hoover Dam has passed. But the Department of Energy has identified 5,400 potential sites for small hydro projects of 30 MWs or less. The sites, in states as dry as Kansas, represent a total 18,000 MW of power — enough to increase by 50 percent America's hydro power. Even New York City's East River has pilot projects to produce power from underwater turbines. As we stare down global warming and peak oil, could small hydroelectric power be a key solution?"

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something about reservoirs (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39484859)

...and their environmental effect.

Re:something about reservoirs (3)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 2 years ago | (#39484961)

...and their environmental effect.

I suspect that, in a situation where fossil fuels are becoming scarce, you'd quite rapidly see people's interest in the environment shrink to one a simple question about every object around them: "Am I better off eating this or burning this?"

Scarce? Where? (3, Informative)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485149)

I suspect that, in a situation where fossil fuels are becoming scarce,

Nice fiction Asimov.

In real life we have hundreds of years of fossil fuels left.

The problem with your assertion is that just like technology help us fend off anything like "peak population", technology also finds new ways to get at and find oil.

So in the U.S. alone we have way more than enough fossil fuel to last us until really good nuclear / solar sources become viable.

Like wind turbines, hydro power is kind of a dead end. It requires a lot of effort to maintain and only really makes much sense on the scale where you are really harming the environment around it.

Look at the history of any large dam and you'll see a trail of destruction behind it. How funny that more dams are being proposed as green...

Re:Scarce? Where? (2, Insightful)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485203)

technology also finds new ways to get at and find oil.

If that were the case, then the energy returned on energy invested would be increasing, instead of decreasing. It doesn't have to hit "1" to stop, either.

Re:Scarce? Where? (2)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485241)

I apologize for the lack of clarity in my phrasing; but I was suggesting a hypothetical scarcity situation: Were fossil fuels to become scarce, you would see a marked decrease in environmental interest.

At present, such a situation does not exist. If, however, it did, I suspect that you'd find people trampling just about anything in the hunt for new sources.

Re:Scarce? Where? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485441)

You are seeing fossil fuels become scarce. You are seeing a marked decrease in environmental interest. Look at China and India. Yes, they're both attempting to reign in coal based pollution. No, they are not doing a very good job of it.

Re:Scarce? Where? (3, Interesting)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485469)

The good ones are running out; but there still seems to be enough coal, vaguely-bituminous-shale, frackable gas, and assorted other burnables sloshing around, if you are willing to ignore the smell... Which we are.

Re:Scarce? Where? (4, Informative)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485421)

In real life we have hundreds of years of fossil fuels left.

Sort of true. There certainly will be oil in the ground 200 years from now. It won't be easy to get, nor will it be inexpensive. The global taste for fossil fuels, especially liquid fossil fuels is truly enormous and growing (think China and India who are attempting to get to US per capita energy expenditures). The supply of fossil fuels isn't growing much at all (happy words from various US politicians notwithstanding).

What we have hear is a failure to communicate [] . Nice writeup on the concept of Peak oil and how we need to change a few things.....

Re:Scarce? Where? (4, Insightful)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485557)

In real life we have hundreds of years of fossil fuels left.

In real life we have millions of years; because somewhere between 50 and 200 it'll become increasingly uneconomical to extract said fossil fuels such that alternatives are actually cheaper. The first it's likely to happen to is oil. In 50 years we're likely to let most of it sit in the ground because pulling it out is too expensive except for certain scientific testing.

Thus the 'peak oil' - at some point extraction cost will exceed the economic worth, and production will start dropping.

Nuclear is already viable in all but political arenas. Jump the price of power enough and people will hold their nose and select it. Of course, you can't exactly shove nuclear power into a car, and oil is mostly used for transportation. So you're looking at a BIG change if you're going to use nuclear power to provide transport. Something like vast electrification of rail lines, restoration of electric trolly car systems, etc... More dense housing where mass transit is viable.

Coal is more a competitor for Nuclear, and we have a lot more of it.

Re:something about reservoirs (2)

WillAdams (45638) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485039)

Pennsylvania is trying to decide which of the old small dams should stay and which should go --- focusing on the impact that such obstructions have on fish and eel spawning.

Re:something about reservoirs (4, Insightful)

MozeeToby (1163751) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485057)

Also, smaller dams means smaller, shallower reservoirs. Which in turn means that they tend to silt up pretty quickly.

They keep making them.... (1, Interesting)

Apothem (1921856) | more than 2 years ago | (#39484895)

But they never pick up after themselves. How many of these projects do you see get made, and how many of them actually get maintained afterwards? You'd like to think that the two numbers would be closer together but they're not.

Economies of scale (4, Insightful)

Gazoogleheimer (1466831) | more than 2 years ago | (#39484921)

Small hydro is nothing new. The state of Georgia has something like fifty or sixty small hydro sites, and they barely make any electricity -- as those stated in the article. The problem is, however, that hydroelectric power -- even without dams -- is fairly ecologically disturbing. Not only that, but you have to maintain it. Why would you want to have to maintain 5400 power plants that each only make less than 30MW? Yes, it's about four or five thousand households, but that's also about a thirtieth of an average coal plant. There's no incentive to do this. Your ROI is low, your maintenance is high (and difficult)...particularly when chemical belchers like Plant Scherer can exist, which produce upwards of three and a half gigawatts. They aren't trendy, but I've yet to see a conclusive argument against breeder reactors.

Re:Economies of scale (4, Interesting)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485105)

The argument against breeder reactors is that you need a lot less nuclear fuel, so that's not good for the people who dig it up and sell it. I can't find another one, anyway. Follow the money.

You're 100% right that medium-sized hydro is a bad solution, however. What we need is more MICRO hydro setups, which don't affect fish and other life because of where they're sited and how they're installed.

Re:Economies of scale (3, Insightful)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485253)

What we need is less people (i.e. less babies). All of these problems like scarce energy, high pollution, and dwindling water supplies wouldn't exist if the North American population was only 16 million (1800). Or even 85 million (1900).

Re:Economies of scale (5, Funny)

jdastrup (1075795) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485331)

Now that is A Modest Proposal...

Re:Economies of scale (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485591)

mmmmmm the other other white meat

Re:Economies of scale (4, Interesting)

dmatos (232892) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485801)

I agree on the micro-hydro setups. This winter I stayed at a resort in northern Ontario that has a 20kW turbine on site. It's the only electricity that's available there. Privately owned and maintained.

Little-to-no damage to the habitat, because the resort is situated between two lakes that have a level difference of about 6 feet naturally.

Of course, it's rare to find locations like that where low-impact turbines could be installed, but we should capitalize on them whenever we can.

Re:Economies of scale (1)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485177)

Agreed. Replacing oil with a plant-based fuel (ethanol, biodiesel) makes a lot more sense. And use solar roofs on homes for electricity. Live off what the sun gives us, as our ancestors did, rather than the dwindling supply of dead plant matter.

BTW I think fuel cell cars are a deadend. They burn hydrogen, which last time I checked does not exist in nature. You can't just drill a hole and find hydrogen there.

Re:Economies of scale (3, Insightful)

mhajicek (1582795) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485285)

Fuel cell cars are an answer to the problem of energy storage, not energy source. High performance batteries are expensive, and hard on the environment to produce. You can make hydrogen with clean energy almost as easily as you can charge a battery with it, and you can transfer hydrogen faster than electricity.

Re:Economies of scale (4, Insightful)

wagnerrp (1305589) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485611)

You can transfer it quickly, but storage is a pain, and from water to hydrogen and back to water, the best returns aren't even hitting 50%. Nearly all of our hydrogen is produced by cracking petroleum, because electrolysis is just so inefficient.

Re:Economies of scale (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485413)

"Replacing oil with a plant-based fuel (ethanol, biodiesel) makes a lot more sense."

Have you done the math? Replacing, say, half of the demand for oil with either of those would not be practical with current agricultural techniques. It's not that they aren't viable -- they are -- but the sheer *size* of the energy demand is the problem. Heck, whale oil was a renewable resource. It could have lasted forever. The problem was the quantities demanded. It's not easy to replace an average of 85 million barrels of oil per day with *anything*, and while there are many options for doing so, when you try to scale them up to that size or even a decent chunk of it you run into problems. We have a BIG problem coming in the next few decades, so we're going to have to employ many different solutions. And we need to start investing heavily in all of them now.

Re:Economies of scale (2)

ThreeDeeNut (1061050) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485689)

All we need is to resurrect Stan Meyers and Nicola Tesla. Between the two of them, we would be working on static electricity delivered free and water also delivered to us free. Possibly the two most important inventors of recent times... everyone should know their names and what hey did for mankind. Chances are, if you find a great way to solve mankinds biggest problems for free, you should run and hide or consider offing yourself. I think the reality is, batteries are expensive, gas is expensive, nuclear is expensive and therefore are all viable because of the supply chain they have to accomodate. Lots of people can make lots of money... just not you or I... we get to pay for it.

Re:Economies of scale (1)

egamma (572162) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485449)

You can't just drill a hole and find hydrogen there.

Really? Whenever I turn on my shower millions of di-hydrodgen oxide molecules come out.

Re:Economies of scale (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485461)

No, replacing oil with plant based fuel DOES NOT make sense. It doesn't scale. It wastes water. It's only useful in certain edge case environments. Just like small scale hydro.

Re:Economies of scale (3, Informative)

wagnerrp (1305589) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485539)

Replacing oil with a plant-based fuel makes no sense. The best plants convert around 10% of light into growth, of which only a fraction is recovered as fuel during harvesting, and only a fraction of that is recovered as usable energy when that fuel is consumed. Even lousy consumer-grade photovoltaics make far better use of sunlight than plants. If you want to spend gobs of money replacing our existing petroleum infrastructure, why not spend it on cheap, high capacity, powerful batteries?

Re:Economies of scale (2)

Moheeheeko (1682914) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485565)

Yknow, other than the fact that Hydrogen Is the most abundant element in the known universe

Breeders (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485621)

I've yet to see a conclusive argument against breeder reactors.

The reason against breeders is the wast amount of waste they produce. It shared the same problem with reprocessing used nuclear fuel: You multiplily waste for a very little gain.

The Frensh built a breeder, it was a desaster (mostly financially). Currently they are using it to destroy the plutonium generated by other normal plants instead of breeding new one.

Re:Economies of scale (1)

egamma (572162) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485803)

Your math is wrong. 1MW= 1000 households []

5400 sites*15MW (since it says 'less than') *1000 homes per megawatt=81 million homes. That's quite a lot of homes.

What? (1)

ledow (319597) | more than 2 years ago | (#39484923)

When total energy required on the order of TWatts, you want to boast about 18GWatt being more than EVERYTHING already out there, hydro-wise?

No. Really. The ecological damage for that pittance of power just isn't worth it.

Re:What? (5, Insightful)

Colonel Korn (1258968) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485101)

When total energy required on the order of TWatts, you want to boast about 18GWatt being more than EVERYTHING already out there, hydro-wise?

No. Really. The ecological damage for that pittance of power just isn't worth it.

You're doing it wrong. You need to look at opportunity cost and give more than a vague comparison. The correct question from an environmental perspective is, "How does the environmental impact of 18 GW of micro-hydro compare to the environmental impact of the 18 GW of power that will be generated through other means in its absence?"

You fall into the trap of thinking any solution that isn't a silver bullet is useless. Sadly, this is how most decision making is done. Hell, your comment is probably better reasoned than most energy decisions made by governments in the form of legislation or about governments in the form of voting.

Re:What? (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485261)

and/or the environmental impact of making the economy 18 GW poorer. So... now we have less profit, so we can't afford to donate to the nature preserve fund, and people can't afford environmental luxuries if they can't eat, so lets just pave over that swamp, I mean wetland, instead of making it a nature preserve.

Supposedly economic activity creates environmental damage. But I drive thru nice suburbs and slums in my commute, and the slums are literally an open air dump. Somehow I don't think growing slums is an environmental cure all.

Re:What? (1)

mk1004 (2488060) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485669)

Good point. People who believe that, say, solar cell production doesn't cause environmental issues are just kidding themselves. I favor approaching energy needs with multiple solutions. Yes, you get lots of different environmental impacts, but you don't concentrate them into a small number of huge impacts. We won't run out of oil and gas for a long time, but at some point, it'll be too expensive to try to keep up with current output. Better to use diverse energy sources, improving efficiency and reducing environmental problems as we go along. Silver bullets should be saved for werewolves.

Re:What? (3, Interesting)

jmorris42 (1458) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485353)

> When total energy required on the order of TWatts, you want to boast about 18GWatt...

This. If hydro is currently producing 6% of our electricity, increasing that by 50% gets you all the way up to 9% but the cost in construction and maintaining so many small installs will dwarf the benefit. To borrow someone else's phrase, "Electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket."

> The ecological damage for that pittance of power just isn't worth it.

While I do agree in this case, note that the enviros ALWAYS say the ecological damage isn't worth it. ALWAYS. Since they cry wolf so regular most normal folk have taken to discounting claims of enviromental harm. Enviros really should consider that and instead of opposing everything every time tell us what they are FOR.

Me, I say build the crap of nukes and convert fleets to natural gas.

It would be a case where the government could make a positive impact and NOT be exceeding their legal bounds. If all large government fleets went natural gas every service station would quickly add the ability to sell to them without any mandate or tax breaks needed. Imagine every new school bus, city bus, police car, etc. converting. Every one of those vehicles stopped needing gas it would relieve a lot of pressure on crude prices AND on our strained refining capacity. Then we could think about the big rigs.

As for nukes, we should be building them. New safer designs so we can retire the current units which were less safe than a modern design before we have operated them far beyond their original service life. Which design is best? Who knows, so have a bake off and pick a half dozen different designs and build some. Dump some R&D into thorium, if only to get those people on board. Right now electric vehicles are just indirect coal burners, get enough nuke capacity onto the grid and they make a lot more sense. Now if we could just get the battery tech up to scratch....

Re:What? (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485663)

What ecological damage? You mean the "damage" of there being a lake there? Maybe we should drain all the natural lakes because they're all causing "damage?"

Re:What? (1)

wagnerrp (1305589) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485913)

TW, singular, not plural. Our current electrical production capacity in the US is right at about 1TW, with yearly average consumption running roughly half that value. That's 2% of our peak output, or 4% of our average, and they're only talking about capacity in the state of Kansas, a particularly dry and flat state generally not considered at all conducive to hydroelectric generation.

Anything but fossil fuels (4, Insightful)

ericloewe (2129490) | more than 2 years ago | (#39484925)

Until everyone realizes that the only short/medium term solution is nuclear, we'll need everything we can get that isn't fossil. Especially coal, but natural gas isn't much better.

Oil won't get much cheaper anytime soon, and will probably get more expensvie. If that happens, this kind of project will be much more appealing.

Re:Anything but fossil fuels (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39484983)

So you are one of those folks that think that fossil fuels are the worst thing man kind has ever came up with. This type of project is more unappealing in environmental feedback than most fossil fuel based projects. There are very few solutions that can actually balance the power needs that we desire versus the energy output of the various solutions and their consequences. Right now, Micro-wind farms and Solar projects are the only type of energy plants that we should be investing in.

Re:Anything but fossil fuels (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485185)

Right now, Micro-wind farms and Solar projects are the only type of energy plants that we should be investing in.

Why, because you own stock in lulzy "green" companies?

Re:Anything but fossil fuels (1)

ericloewe (2129490) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485275)

Solar and Wind will never meet our energy demands unless we start using a lot less power than we do now. That doesn't mean we shouldn't use them, it just means we need other stuff.

Medium-scale hydroelectric might not be very good, but small-scale implementations that take the environment into account and keep the impact to a minimum can help.

And yes, I do think fossil fuels are one of the worst things we've done, and that we should reduce their use as much as possible.

Re:Anything but fossil fuels (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485271)

Why exactly is natural gas not much better? Cleaner burning than coal or refined products, we have the delivery infrastructure in place and we have massive reserves of it in the US. Hydro power is one of the least eco-friendly sources of power we've used. It has caused broader and more quantifiable negative effects to species than oil, gas, coal or nuclear methods. Oh, it doesn't produce CO2, it simply directly destroys environments.

Oh, sorry, you were talking out of your ass. Continue.

Efficiency First (2)

MountainLogic (92466) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485399)

Want a solution, how about a little efficiency. Doubling efficiency is a no brainier. Every major energy driver has solutions to double efficiency. Wind and solar costs are dropping like a stone and utility scale energy storage is ready for deployment (see Gates' new gravity storage investment). We just need to build in high expectation for efficiency like we have for semiconductor technology. There is a drastic difference between coal and natural gas in terms of atmospheric impact. Gas also has the ability to spin up turbines in seconds so it needs much less wasted hot standby capacity than steam technologies (nuclear/coal). The way fracking is now done is a real issue, but there are cleaner solutions to that to bridge us to a renewable future. FWIW, tar sands are also a major disaster for the environment. It take a huge amount of energy to get the oil out so there are massive impacts to the atmosphere besides the ugly water and soil damage. Until nuclear is ready to pay their own way I'm not going to believe they have a mature technology. The nuclear industry does not buy insurance to cover their potential damages because they have a get out of jail card from congress. If your neighborhood nuke takes out your region, they only have to pay a tiny fraction of the cost because the industry has a strict cap on liabilities ( That's right, if MegaNuke Corp blows a rainbow of toxic and radioactive crud all over your town you are totally out of luck. That tells me they know that their technology is not ready for prime time. Even wall street will not take the risk even given the high profits. That has to tell you something if those pirates find it too risky. And on the back end, who do you think is going to get stuck with the clean-up bill when these things are used-up? And who is going to get stuck with finding a home for this lethal crud for eternity?

Re:Efficiency First (2)

ericloewe (2129490) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485763)

I suggest you use the HTML paragraph tags to format your text and improve readability. It can be a pain, but it's worth it.

Natural gas shares the main issues of oil and coal: pollution and limited (very large but still limited) supply.

Nuclear power can be made much safer than any fossil, hydroelectric, wind and even some solar power plants. It's a matter of cost. If you keep the bean counters away and just safeguard against anything you can think of (using reason, of course), you'll end up with something that's safer.

I'm sure someone can quote deaths related to coal/gas/oil extraction or even related to hydroelectric power, compared to nuclear power.

Where to start.... (1)

tacokill (531275) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485781)

a) We don't use oil for producing power. We use oil, almost exclusively for transportation.
b) Coal is a fossil fuel. So is natty gas.
c) How the hell did this get modded +5 insightful?

Maggie Koerth-Baker is an idiot (2)

ShieldW0lf (601553) | more than 2 years ago | (#39484967)

The age of massive hydroelectric power installations is only beginning. It most likely won't be dominated by Americans, but it will dwarf that which exists now.

Re:Maggie Koerth-Baker is an idiot (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485457)

Regarding the subjectline, I was surprised that a google search indicated via linkedin that she lives in Minnesota. I would have guessed California. Usually you hear people trash talking hoover dam because they live out west where water is scarce, and hoover is "legendary" for being pretty close to running out of water and having to shut down "soon", therefore since the whole world revolves around CA, that means all hydroelectric plants will be shutting down soon.

Out east we have more water than we know what to do with, and she's close enough that you'd expect her to know that and laugh at the CA and NV people.

Admittedly, since govt and corps have merged, lots of stupid things are done to maintain power. I would not be surprised if most of the new hydro sites will be built in bone dry deserts as a jobs program, rather than where an engineer would put them to get maximum power...

Sane summary? (1)

MSesow (1256108) | more than 2 years ago | (#39484969)

I am a little surprised to see "could small hydroelectric power be a key solution" instead of "could small hydroelectric power be the key solution". Surprised, but happy! It makes me feel like I am reading something with thought behind it, instead of a supermarket tabloid.

I know of existing dams... (3, Informative)

dthanna (1294016) | more than 2 years ago | (#39484977)

I know of existing dams in the US - several on the Rock River (north-central Illinois, U.S.A.) - Rockton, Rockford, Dixon, Byron, Sterling/Rock Falls, etc. that were built years ago by Commonwealth Edison for min-hydro power. The dams are still there to provide floodwater control, but have been decom'd for electrical generation.

Last time I looked, the dam in Dixon station still had generators in operation. []

Now, I'm no civil engineer.. but if you already have a dam, and the environmental impact associated with it, why not us the head you have to generate some? Yea, your not getting the 200-300' head that you would like, but there is still a lot of potential energy to be captured out of the 20' 30' head out of one of these.

Re:I know of existing dams... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485377)

Now, I'm no civil engineer.. but if you already have a dam, and the environmental impact associated with it, why not us the head you have to generate some?

I ask my local government figureheads this question at every opportunity. (My home state also owns several decommissioned hydro sites with existing dams and raceways.) The elected corporate tools always tell me to email their office and they will get back to me with an answer. Not one of them ever has, although I've done this for many years.

I suspect the answer is that anything that will impact entrenched existing powers is forbidden.

Idiotic Leading Questions in Summaries (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485003)

Dear editors/submitters for Slashdot stories:

Please eliminate the stupid leading/inflammatory/etc. questions at the end of the summaries. Anyone with an IQ higher than that of a grape has already mentally asked themselves far more insightful questions than the ones posed at the end of the summaries. You are just making yourselves look like idiots by asking them.

An Old AC

Small plants (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485013)

I have found it amazing that so many small plants have been abandoned in this area (Western Oregon). Some were fish blockers some were not.

Short answer: No. (1)

JoeMerchant (803320) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485023)

Energy produced = volume of water flowing * square of the distance drop, cut your vertical drop by 1/2, your power output drops to 25%.

Interesting corollary with the latest simulator findings on fusion power... it might break even at 26M amps input, it gets really interesting at 60M amps, and better and better from there. It doesn't work yet because we haven't made one big enough yet.

Sorry, I was wrong (2)

JoeMerchant (803320) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485083)

Sorry, I was wrong about the squared term (in hydro power from height, it's linear, but it is a product of the height * flow)... the fusion simulations did quote output varying as the square of the input current....

Re:Short answer: No. (1)

necro81 (917438) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485123)

Potential energy varies linearly with height, not with the square of height. Put differently, pressure varies linearly with height, and power is flow rate * pressure, so power varies linearly with height.

Mathematics aside, even if you were correct, I would say "so what?" If the potential is still measured in gigawatts, then it's probably worth looking into. I'll agree it's not a panacea, but it's something nonetheless.

Contained Hydro (4, Insightful)

MountainLogic (92466) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485043)

There are many places such as irrigation channels where you can place micro turbines that will have no ill environmental effect as these do not support aquatic life. It looks like this was not included in the report. For example see for a unique hydro generator that does not need a damn. These can even be placed in the outflow from some sewage or industrial plants. Not big power, but lots of places you can wedge these in to add distributed generation into the grid - often at the ends of branches where it is needed the most.

Re:Contained Hydro (4, Informative)

Scarred Intellect (1648867) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485337)

There are many places such as irrigation channels where you can place micro turbines that will have no ill environmental effect as these do not support aquatic life. It looks like this was not included in the report.

Irrigation canals DO support aquatic life. Where do you think they get the water from? Rivers.

It isn't necessarily vital aquatic life, but then where do you draw the line on vital vs. non-vital life?

The canals in Eastern Washington provide me with some of the best bow-fishing for carp in the region. Even the wasteways (surplus water from agricultural processes) have plentiful fish. And not just carp.

They're basically diverted rivers. That being said, turbines placed in irrigation canals will have less impact than those placed in full rivers. But even the impact of a full hydroelectric facility is manageable. Take the Columbia River, we still have record salmon runs from time to time.

One other hurdle with hydroelectric is that it is not considered renewable, so if there are mandates to require x% of electricity from renewable sources, hydro ain't gonna fit the bill due to lame liberals that deem is non-renewable.

Being a fan of hydroelectric power, I'm well aware of the issues on both sides of the argument, and still favor it. But I think what you pointed out on the latter portion of your post needs to be made more public, as it is an even better solution.

Re:Contained Hydro (3, Interesting)

MountainLogic (92466) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485679)

Scarred Intellect, fair enough on all points. Hydro was taken off the the table for counting as a renewable for two reasons. 1) They wanted to encourage new renewables to be built and not just count the old renewables and at the time that meant big hydro damns. Including old hydro in the accounting would have resulted in zero new renewables. 2) At the time the rules were codified, hydro was assumed to mean big damns and a certain end to northwest salmon runs. Technology and understanding evolves and there is always room for reevaluation. That said we have also had some near/true extinctions of a number of salmon runs. Even with hatcheries, the genetic diversity of salmon is not what it should be.

The finicky environmentalist (5, Interesting)

crazyjj (2598719) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485051)

One of my biggest problems with the environmentalist "movement" (and, in fairness, it's really more a mish-mash of a bunch of somewhat different movements) is its propensity for embracing fashionable fads and then tossing them aside the second some new thing comes along. Hydro was once the darling of clean energy, but then someone started complaining about the poor fish not being able to spawn as good as before, and so it was tossed aside like some embarrassing stepchild--in favor of the current green stars-of-the-moment, wind and solar. This in spite of the fact that hydro has BY FAR the longest and most productive history of any of the green energy generators. There are still working dams out there today that have been generating electricity for close to a century (probably some over a century now).

Makes me wonder how long it will be before someone finds fault with wind and solar and those get tossed aside for some new fad too.

Re:The finicky environmentalist (4, Insightful)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485295)

So you're saying that environmentalists change their opinions as new facts come to light? How dare they? Those flip-floppers!

Re:The finicky environmentalist (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485521)

Its a fashion choice rather than an engineering choice. Oh look, pink skirts are "in" this spring. No wait, throw those out, the new "in" thing is blue lacy skirts.
If it was based on carefully reasoned decision making, then it would be wise of them to re-evaluate, but its the green equivalent of watching the Style cable channel therefore not respectable.

Re:The finicky environmentalist (1)

wardred (602136) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485313)

That, and we pretty much dammed up all the good "big hydro" spots already. . .

Re:The finicky environmentalist (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485409)

I already have a fault with wind power in my area. In central Nebraska, we have a "Wind Power" movement. At a recent meeting/rally of "greenies", I stood up and asked what would happen after the first Spring, if/when the wind turbines killed several hundred migrating Sand-Hill Cranes. The room was silent. Next fad.

Re:The finicky environmentalist (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485829)

The number of birds kill by wind power seems large, but it is dwarfed by the number of birds killed by other sources: []

Don't choose energy sources based on what's new and fancy. Choose them based on what fits your country the best. For some countries, geothermal power performs best (Iceland), for others it is hydropower (Norway), and for others wind power or solar power may be optimal. If none of those options are efficient, hope that a new "fad" comes up which is more efficient for your country.

Re:The finicky environmentalist (2)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485741)

Hydro was once the darling of clean energy, but then someone started complaining about the poor fish not being able to spawn as good as before, and so it was tossed aside like some embarrassing stepchild--in favor of the current green stars-of-the-moment, wind and solar. This in spite of the fact that hydro has BY FAR the longest and most productive history of any of the green energy generators.

Yes, I'm rather embarrassed myself to admit that for a long time I completely ignored the rather huge amount of habitat destruction a hydro dam represents. Habitat destruction being the biggest, most immediate conservation problem. Are you really shocked that "Hey,let's block up the rest of our waterways!" isn't a rallying cry for environmentalists?

Makes me wonder how long it will be before someone finds fault with wind and solar and those get tossed aside for some new fad too.

They already are known to have faults. Wind's impact is pretty light, and bird fatalities that were a problem in some early farms have been largely eliminated (as in, made insignificant compared to building strikes and cats). Bats are still a problem, though, and it's not a very well understood problem as of yet either.

Still, wind and solar are two of the 'greenest' options at the moment.

"Do the best thing we know how to do today, and do something better if and when we discover it" is a fairly rational stance for anyone, is it not?

You wouldn't want it to come to this... (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485055)

One convenience of small hydro projects is that(if you are willing to accept lousy efficiency) they can be built with quite minimal technological resources. The hydraulic and mechanical side is classical era stuff and bolting on the electric half is 19th century physics and engineering.

Larger systems demand substantially greater architectural expertise, if you don't want them to collapse a lot...

Re:You wouldn't want it to come to this... (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485665)

It may be simple, but it's not cheap. I live in SE Alaska, 100+ inches of rain per year. Steep fjord like valleys (actually they are fjords). So long as nothing is screwing up, we get 100% of our electricity from hydro. We have two generators, an 18 MW and a 10 MW system. Generators are several million dollars a pop. We have a plan to increase dam height to generate another 10 MW - at close to $100 million in costs (some if which will be used to replace 50 year old equipment).

That's a lot of money.

Cheaper than diesel, in the long run but requiring a large up front payment. Small cities / towns can't afford this sort of thing without significant state and federal money. We can't even bond out that kind of money because the tax base isn't there.

And this is in a pretty good case scenario. Not best case - construction costs are high because it's remote and the geography and geology works against you, but that's life....

Think of the fish (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485075)

Dams have a pretty spotty ecological track record, don't they? Makes it harder for fish to migrate, screws with water tables, and when they're end-of-lifed, nobody wants to pay to take them down.

Irony (1)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485077)

My state government just spent millions removing dams, in order to restore the natural ecology of the streams and rivers, and protect the Bay. Now another distant government wants to put the dams back.

Grrrr. This could be titled, 'Politicians waste money tearing dams up, and then putting them back.'

Re:Irony (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485267)

This could be titled, 'Politicians waste money tearing dams up, and then putting them back.'

But just think how many more jobs you create that way.

Re:Irony (1)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485291)

Good point. I'll go round and start smashing windows. Then run for Congress on my exemplary job-creation record. ;-)

Stop DHMO (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485085)

Hydro dams use a lot of DHMO which causes ecological disaster and is extremely dangerous if it spills.

Re:Stop DHMO (3, Informative)

0123456 (636235) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485259)

Indeed. Far more people have been killed by accidental release of DHMO from hydro schemes than accidental release of radiation from nuclear plants.

Ridiculous (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485093)


i't dead easy to calculate whether it's worthwhile to set up a hydro plant. You measure the amount of water flow, the drop, and that directly tells you how much energy is available. You compare that to the costs of building a hydro plant there, taking into account the cost of construction, the cost of money, and the other costs, and come up with a clear-cut indication of whether the project will ever break-even.

That has been done, for every sizable stream, like 100 years ago.

There may be a few more sites that are practical now, given the lower interest rates and the desire to cut down on carbon pollution, but not a LOT of sites, and no large ones.

"Underwater turbines" are a large factor under break-even in almost every case. You need a significant drop to get enough energy to be worthwhile collecting.

Local Energy and Efficiency are the Future (0)

TheMiddleRoad (1153113) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485129)

We're surrounded by energy sources. When it's 30 outside my house, it's still 60 underground. When it's 90 out, it's still 60 under. With a heat pump, I can harness that energy differential. I've got sunlight for only a few hours a day, but it can make a bit dent in my usage through water heating and electricity. I could even use an electric pump running on excess solar to store water up on my hillside during the day then let it come down during the night for hydro power. Add in an efficient fridge, more insulation, and better heat sealing, and I'll reduce my outside power usage to a small fraction of its current level. Multiply that by a hundred million households and we'll really be getting somewhere.

Re:Local Energy and Efficiency are the Future (2)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485379)

We're surrounded by well insulated energy sources.

Corrected that for you. The delta-T at zero watts transmitted isn't as interesting as the delta-T at a couple KW. A icecube is about 40 degrees cooler than my house, which sounds great, but the rate of cooling from one icecube cannot cool my house at a couple KW rate for very long.

Be careful because you can easily get into a situation where 500 feet of plastic pipe can only transfer, over the life of the pipes, the equivalent of 50 barrels of oil energy yet take the equivalent of 100 barrels of oil to manufacture, bury, pump, decommission, etc.

Also you can easily get into a situation where you get a whopping kilowatt of cooling... by running a 2 HP liquid circulation pump. That same 2 HP motor running a reasonable COP around 8 could generate over 6 KW of cooling across a much higher delta T.

Re:Local Energy and Efficiency are the Future (1)

TheMiddleRoad (1153113) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485609)

I suppose you could get into those situations. That's why these solutions are engineered. My understanding is that a geothermal system should last about 20 years. The ground loop should last 50 or more. If it's laid out right and run year round, you don't get heat buildup in the ground. 1KW would be very little cooling for such a system. That would be downright insane. The purpose of geothermal is to make heat pumps more efficient. It's hard to shed heat when the outside temp is 90 degrees, unless you're shedding it into 60 degree soil.

Re:Local Energy and Efficiency are the Future (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485607)

Harnessing a 30F degree differential is a joke right? Convert that to Kelvin and you are on a 15 degree swing at a constant of about 280-290? Let's call it 300 and 285 then the Carnot cycle efficiency something like 2% -- very tough place to make a living. I'm a proponent of using geothermal heat pumps -- as constant temperature sources and sinks but not as power supplies. (Very happy with my geothermal HVAC system.) Capturing solar power as electricity is a fine idea, but electricity is high quality energy and you can capture more low quality energy (heat) per square meter cheaper -- hot water for domestic use or heating use, hot air along the lines of

Storing energy in a way that it can be harvested as high quality power is a challenge. Storing low quality power is easier as long as you need low quality power. Building a bank of photovoltaic collectors to drive resistive heating in a water heater is, for example, not optimal.

Re:Local Energy and Efficiency are the Future (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485733)

Yes you're getting somewhere. You're getting broke. Sure you have a 30 degree temp differential to work with. That'll be $30K US dollars to put in a heat pump whose payout time is 10 years. If it doesn't break. Sure you can superinsulate - for maybe $20000 a house. Got that much spare change? Thought not.

Lots of energy floating around. Just not lots of cheap energy.

there's no free ride (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485131)

lets not forget that when we harvest the energy, we're changing the flow. If you harvest enough energy for it to matter, you'll be slowing down the flows, which may have an even bigger impact on ecology than the fossils are having now.

Just look at the damage the big dams do.

Re:there's no free ride (1)

crazyjj (2598719) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485745)

Has it occured to you that wind and solar may have unexpected side effects too? There's no free ride, after all.

A future but it's not the future (5, Informative)

Kjella (173770) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485143)

Here in Norway we got more mountains and rain per square kilometer or per person the US could dream about - okay we have a cold climate too - but not even we are self-sufficient on hydro power or for that matter renewable power. Sure as fossil fuels run out they'll surely be built - just like wind, water, solar, geothermal, biofuel and everything else you can think of - but they won't add up to the current energy usage. This figure [] pretty much says it all.

Re:A future but it's not the future (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485791)

Same problem in SE Alaska (which looks suspiciously like Norway). Lots of hydro potential but it's rather expensive to build out. Problem with steep sided gorges is that it's hard to build damns on them, they tend to happen in the middle of nowhere and transmission lines over rugged terrain ain't cheap either.

Now, when diesel is $10 / gallon everyone will be whistling a different tune, but here and now it's hard to get the money to go out an put these projects together.

All dam-based power is temporary (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485163)

1. dams collect sediment, and eventually become unusable, then must be removed. Typical lifespan is 50-100 years.
2. dams destroy fisheries
3. dams eliminate sediment deposition upon floodplains, making floodplain farmland less soil-rich
4. since downstream-of-the-dam water has low sediment content, it increases erosion downstream of the dam, eliminating sandbars, and scouring riverbeds.
5. dams greatly increase evaporation and water loss
6. dams built for "flood control" are usually built for normal springtime snowmelt flooding. they do little to control flooding from rain.

Hydropower is fine, so long as you do mini-hydro, or towed-array generation. Dam-based power generation is highly destructive, and carries substantial long-term hidden costs, such as the cost of removing the dam at the end of its life, along with the massive amount of sediment that was impounded by the dam.

Re:All dam-based power is temporary (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485779)

So sad that you do not have a clue.
1) 50-100 years is LONGER than a fossil fuel plant and much much longer than any of the AE plants.
2) These dams already exists and will be converted to make use of hydroelectric.

Everythings drier in KS? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485165)

Kansas isn't really all that dry, depending on the part of the state... eastern ks recieves more rainfall than most of new england.

dfsdfs (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485183)

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Natural Gas (1)

geoffrobinson (109879) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485233)

Fracking, natural gas, and, if you have the political will, nuclear. That's the answer.

I'm sure these projects could have a benefit and will be fine. But they don't seem to be a key solution. Everything else can be in the mix, but we aren't moving away from fossil fuels unless we want to nuke up. And as we've seen with Germany and the general green resistance to nuclear, that's not happening.

But, sure, create a bunch of underwater turbines.

Hydro is bad for migratory fish (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485333)

So it turns out that Hydroelectric power is not as green as we once thought it was. hydro power damns are a huge barrier to migratory fish such as alewives, shad and salmon. Alewives and shad are enormously important to the ocean food chain and their decline has been linked to the decline in ground fish stocks such as cod, hake, haddock, and other fish. Ted Ames, a MacArthur Genius grant recipient and Maine fisherman has documented this decline:

Add fish ladders to the hydro dams? Sadly, fish ladders are grossly inefficient and event the newest ones only get about 30% over the dam.

There are many efforts under way to rid rivers of obstacles and barriers to the original wild life and bring the fish populations back:

Hydro is not that bad for migratory fish (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485491)

You are several decades behind. Fish ladders got much better when they let actual scientiest look at them. You lose a bit of energy when fish are migrating, but newer models to better predict fish movement (and looking at the whole river and not a single plant) make a lot of difference.

In Germany there are rivers where fish have to pass dozens of hydro plants, and there is almost no loss of fish.

It won't begin to cover our energy use BUT.... (1)

gestalt_n_pepper (991155) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485351)

We had damn well better do it anyway or we're going to be much worse off than we could be. Anybody who can do arithmetic and use google should have figured out by now that the 160 exajoules added to the world's energy budget each year just by petroleum can't be replaced by "renewables." EVER. The numbers just don't work and can't be made to work (See [] ). Our best bets are nuclear and thorium and even their numbers are lousy.

Bottom line? It's a lower energy future. We need to put as much long-term, relatively sustainable, energy producing infrastructure in place while we still can. Ubiquitous, widely distributed, small scale energy production through dams, solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear and any other way we can think of is the way to do that. In 50 years, we won't have 24/7 electricity everywhere, but we may have enough to stay above the level of Somalia if we put enough infrastructure in place today.

Small Hydro for Small Living (1)

swb (14022) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485517)

James Howard Kunstler is a huge advocate of much more decentralized living -- essentially small town living with an emphasis on local agriculture, etc.

If you have people living in a town of 1000 people near a river, small hydro seems to make sense -- that size of a town could probably get by with 10MW, which assumes 10kW per person average consumption, which I'd guess is probably a little high.

DO THE MATH! (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485555)

The answer is a solid NO [] .

Small Scale Hydro makes sense (5, Informative)

Strider- (39683) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485699)

Small scale hydro can make a heck of a lot of sense. I work with a small community high in the mountains of Washington State, where the primary power supply is a small scale hydro-electric generation system. The funny part is that this technology isn't "new"... The turbines and generators they're using have patent plates on them that read 10-04-86, and that's not 1986. Despite being easily 100 years old, the technology is still easy to maintain, and efficient. Based on the electrical output compared to the water flow, we figure this plant is about 80% efficient, which is pretty good.

In the summer, the system will generate upwards of 250kW of power, which is more than adequate for the community. In the winter, this does drop down to 30kW or so, but that is still more or less sufficient for the lower winter population.

The water supply for this system comes off a small creek flowing down the mountain, about 300' up there is a small diversion dam that the creek flows into. Water will either flow into the penstock, or continue down the creek depending on demand. As a side note, the water pressure is sufficient to push some of the water through the entire water treatment plant, and then into a storage tank, to supply the community's drinking water without the use of a single pump.

Fun with numbers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485715)

So 5,400 sites to produce 18 GW of power over all of them. To feed a 3,000 GW domestic appetite for electricity. Assuming the 50% increase, that means hydro currently provides 36 GW. This would make it 54 GW total from hydro. What is the cost per MW installed for these 5,400 solutions?? Compared to other sources?

That also sounds like 5,400 cases of NIMBY.

Actually, more reservoirs will be added (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485727)

Here in western USA, we have a number of reservoirs that do not have hydroelectric on them. These will most likely be modifed in the future to have that. Some of these will generate 100's of MW or more. In addition, it is a certainty that Colorado WILL build one large reservoir in the west. The reason is that if we do not, we will see Californa, Nevada, and Az contine to steal our water. It is a case of use it or lose it. That large reservoir (most likely 2-forks) will produce something close to a gigawatt or more.

Hoover, really? (1)

Life2Death (801594) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485753)

I totally agree, they'd never build anything that small these days!

We just finished building one far greater in china, and I suspect this is the new age of Super Dams

Pumped Storage (1)

Tokolosh (1256448) | more than 2 years ago | (#39485797)

The answer is yes, and the reason is [] to compensate for variable power sources, such as wind and solar.

Personally, I think the environmental problems of dams are overstated, and those of bio, solar, wind are understated.

See [] for what has happened to a 120-year-old dam in my neighborhood

“The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” - Sheikh Yamani

My small Alaskan town (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485837)

I am from a tiny rural community in Alaska, one in that is isolated enough to make fuel quite expensive - I haven't visited in a while, but the last time fuel down in the "lower 48" was as expensive as it is now, gasoline was over $5.50 a gallon, not to mention diesel at almost $6.50. This was enough to make electrical bills quite painful, to the tune of about 75 cents/KWH (No, I'm not joking or exaggerating). A few years ago, a very small hydroelectric dam was installed at a local river in an effort to lower power costs and provide a source of energy cleaner than the old diesel generators that were then in use. Electricity still isn't the cheapest, but as soon as the dam's generators switched on, it dropped over 20 cents off of the hourly rate, and will most likely continue to drop as the project pays for itself. The town's small grid is now run entirely off of this one dam, with the diesel generators serving only as a backup. Now, I'm no expert, but this seems like progress to me. For a rural community accessible only by boat and plane, having a reliable power source that can run year-round without the need for shipping in expensive fuels, these kinds of projects are nearly priceless, and for any community, an interim alternative to hydrocarbon power is a positive thing. Now if only we can convince people that the word "nuclear" does not have to mean death and destruction...

Really small hydro has a past and a present (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39485865)

In Big Sur one of the state parks has a Pelton Wheel on display. It was used to generate electricity early in the 20th century. That type of setup is good if you have a low flow but a high drop, which is exactly what you have there. In fact the terrain is so rough and beautiful that it has few remaining residents and is mostly parkland. The Pelton Wheel and its small housing did not detract much from the beauty although I suspect the noise of it actually operating might not be so pleasant.

I have also seen some property for sale with legal microturbines generating power for a single residence. If this can be done in California with such very restrictive laws it can be done everywhere. However, the guy might have been grandfathered in or gone through an awful lot of red tape and fees. That's the present.

The future? Yeah sure. It's just not going to be a huge percentage though. A few rural people can avoid the expense of the grid. A few municipalities will supplement their power. Small hydro, or any alternative source for that matter, cannot be the sole prime mover of a high energy society.

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