Big Hydropower Potential in Small Projects

Adding hydropower capacity to existing dams could supply the same amount of energy as 18 new nuclear reactors.

| April/May 2012

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.

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