Under the umbrella of the Department of Energy's renewable energy funding, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced last week that up to $30.6 million in stimulus funds would go into modernizing seven hydropower projects.
While $30.6 million doesn't sound like much in the context of the $2.2 billion in renewable energy grants in all that were announced, the DOE estimates that the dam upgrades could increase generation by 187,000 megawatt-hours per year at an average cost of less than 4 cents per kWh — all without building new dams.
In addition to benefiting a handful of cities and utilities, the funding is a boon to companies with technologies, such as high-efficiency fish-friendly turbines and advanced control systems.
"Hydropower has been an important renewable energy source for many years but often doesn't get the attention it might need," says Raegan Macvaugh of GE Energy Services, one company that hopes to cash in on the funding.
The funded projects are divided into two groups: those with more than 50 MW of capacity and those with less. The former group includes up to $6 million for Alabama Power Company, which will replace vintage turbines at three hydroelectric plants on the Coosa River; up to $13 million for Alcoa, Inc. to replace four 90-year-old turbines at the Tapoco Cheoah plant in Robbinsville, N.C., work that would increase generation by 23 percent and reduce the likelihood of an oil spill into the river; and up to $4.67 million for the City of Tacoma Department of Public Utilities to add two turbines to the existing Cushman No. 2 Dam in Potlatch, Wash., a project that will incorporate an upstream fish collection pool to enable reintroduction of native fish above the dam.
Projects under 50 MW include plans by the City of Boulder, Colo., which stands to get up to $1.18 million to replace two vintage turbines with one highly efficient unit at the 100-year-old Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Project; Energy Northwest, which could get up to $800,000 for a new, efficient Pelton Wheel turbine at its Packwood Lake hydroelectric facility; the Incorporated County of Los Alamos, N.M., which could get up to $4.56 million to add a low-flow turbine/generator to the Abiquiu hydroelectric plant; and North Little Rock Electric Department in Little Rock, Ark., which could get up to $450,000 to install an automated intake maintenance device at its hydroelectric facility on the Arkansas River.
Dammed If You Do ...
It all sounds great: Spend just a little bit of money to get a lot more power from a natural, renewable resource. And it does seem as though the DOE has focused on projects that are providing some sort of environmental benefit, not just energy generation.
But, and this is a pretty big but, "hydropower" is basically a nice word for "dam," and dams bring a host of environmental concerns that some activists say outweigh their ability to produce energy with little to no emissions.
In a 2000 report, the World Council on Dams (WCD), which was set up by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), found that the costs of dams have been "unacceptable," particularly in terms of impacts to displaced people, downstream communities and the environment. According to the WCD, 40-80 million people have been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for dams.
According to the environmental nonprofit International Rivers, while only a minority of the world's 45,000 large dams generate electricity, the dams that have displaced the most people and had the greatest environmental impact almost always have a hydropower function. The organization, which works to support the removal of dams, cites numerous environmental issues with large hydropower dams, including flooded wetlands, a loss of biodiversity and the destruction of wildlife.
In fact, the bad eco-reputation of dams has been part of what has made it difficult to get hydropower-modernization projects funded, according to Glaucio Sansevero, also with GE Energy Services.
"The overall perception is that all hydros are equal and all dams are bad and that's not necessarily true — there are better ways to use those resources," he says.
... Dammed If You Don't
Given that the average U.S. dam is between 30 and 40 years old, and many of the country's dams aren't going anywhere any time soon, it's probably a good thing to make them run more efficiently and in ways that reduce their impact on the environment.
Having chosen to fund projects that offer not only meaningful efficiency improvements but also real measures in place to address impacts on river ecosystems, the DOE does seem committed to improving the performance of existing hydropower plants without building new dams.
In the best-case scenario, the Recovery Act funding of hydropower modernization projects will help stimulate other similar modernization projects, and dams that are simply obsolete and really do live up to the bad dam stereotype will eventually be removed.
And in fact, there was big news on the dam removal front recently as well, with progress being made on a project to remove dams on the Shawsheen River in Massachusetts, as well as increasing political momentum behind a giant dam-removal project in the Pacific Northwest. California approved a water bill last week that included $250 million to help pay for the removal of four large dams on the Klamath River, part of a landmark deal that has been brokered between the governments of California and Oregon, the federal government, the dam's owners, tribes, farmers and environmentalists.
With positive movement in both directions on hydropower — the improvement of the dams we can live with and the removal of those we cannot — it may earn a place in the renewable energy sector yet.