Big Hydropower Potential in Small Projects

Adding hydropower capacity to existing dams could supply the same amount of energy as 18 new nuclear reactors.
By Megan E. Phelps
April/May 2012
Add to My MSN

Simply expanding the generating capacity of an existing hydropower facility in Lawrence, Kan., will triple its energy output without building any new dams.

Content Tools

Related Content

What's Your Solar Potential?

This handy online tool helps calculate your solar energy potential based on your location.

Renewable Energy: What's the First Step?

Start cutting your electricity use today, and it will save you a bundle of cash on a renewable energ...

Is It Safe to Plant a Garden in Galvanized Stock Tanks?

A reader wonders whether it is safe to use a galvanized stock tank as a garden planter.

Is There a Type of Pump That Can Move Water to a Higher Elevation Without Using Electricity?

It's true! You really can pump water to a higher elevation using nothing but water power.

In Lawrence, Kan., a hydropower plant is under construction. When completed, it will produce enough renewable energy to power about 4,500 homes — all without building a dam.

This remarkable scenario is possible because the dam’s already there. The Bowersock Mills & Power Co. has been producing energy since 1874. The new project will simply expand the plant’s generating capacity so the same dam will produce three times as much hydroelectric energy.

The hydropower potential of similar “small hydro” projects is surprising. Forecasts vary, but a conservative estimate from the Department of Energy is that 5,400 sites across the United States could support small hydropower projects, for a total of about 18,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power. That’s not small change: It would take about 18 new nuclear reactors to produce the same amount of electricity! These are small, low-impact projects, and the majority wouldn’t require new dams.

What’s standing in the way of all these new projects? Even small hydro projects are subject to complex regulations — at least for now. Recently, however, bills have been proposed in both the House and Senate to simplify the regulations and encourage the development of small-scale, low-impact hydro projects.

“I also think there has been so little small hydro developed over the past 30 years that the investment community doesn’t really have a grasp of it yet,” says Sarah Hill-Nelson, co-owner of the Bowersock plant. “It’s up to the industry to educate more investors about the value of hydropower potential.”

In addition to a financial payoff for the owners and investors, hydroelectric power reduces our reliance on coal, oil and nuclear energy, while preventing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Every day we see examples of why it’s important for the United States to develop clean, renewable, domestic energy,” Hill-Nelson says. “There is potential for small hydro everywhere. This project can serve as an example that clean, domestic energy is an achievable goal.”

Read a longer interview with Hill-Nelson in Small-Scale Hydropower: An Inside Look at Making Renewable Energy and follow the progress of this project on the Bowersock Mills & Power Co. website.

Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .

Post a comment below.


Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.