Micro Hydro: A New Spin on Hydropower

Small-scale hydroelectric turbines offer big opportunities to transform micro hydro energy from flowing water into electrical current.

  • Free Flow Hydro
    Workers prepare to lower a hydrokinetic power generator into the Mississippi River, utilizing one form of micro hydro turbines.
    Photo by Free Flow Power Corporation
  • Verdant Power Inc Kris Unger
    This turbine was installed in New York City’s East River in 2006 as part of the Roosevelt Island TidalEnergy Project – the first licensed commercial tidal power project in the United States.
    Photo by Verdant Power Inc/Kris Unger
  • Verdant Power, Inc.2
    Verdant Power's hydrokinetic turbines are tethered to the riverbed, turning a river's current into electrical current.
    Photo by Verdant Power, Inc.

  • Free Flow Hydro
  • Verdant Power Inc Kris Unger
  • Verdant Power, Inc.2

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Momentum, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.    

On a fast-moving stretch of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, a new 9.2 megawatt hydroelectric dam generates enough electricity to power 7,500 homes. Built by Brookfield Renewable Energy Group and Nelson Energy, the Lower St. Anthony Hydroelectric Project sits in a lock of an existing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam.    

The Lower St. Anthony is the first major new hydroelectric project on the upper Mississippi in decades. It represents a budding movement to begin tapping into perhaps the world’s most overlooked yet reliable power source — moving water. Although most of the rivers best suited for large hydropower plants already have seen the installation of massive dams and turbines that use the power of trapped water gradually let loose to generate electricity, what’s left is still a pretty rich trove of potential. Energy developers are now eyeing large and small river systems, tidal basins and even big western irrigation ditches as sources of a less common but very promising approach to tapping the power of water: small-scale hydropower.    

Developers have focused on two broad types of micro hydro proposals: placing low-head hydro on existing locks and dams in rivers, and installing hydrokinetic turbines, which capture the energy of currents while being tethered to beds of rivers and tidal areas.    

“We have a chance to squeeze some new energy out of little spots,” says Matthew Nocella, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.–based National Hydropower Association. “Folks working in this market say there is a lot of interest right now on the small hydro side.”    

It’s a global trend. In collaboration with the United Nations, China created the International Center on Small Hydropower to gather data and promote small hydro, and is seen as a global leader in its development. The center’s February 2012 newsletter highlighted low-head projects in Peru, South Korea, Uganda, China, Scotland, Switzerland and Tanzania.    



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