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Don't ignore hydroelectric

Rod Skogerboe, The Coloradoan February 28, 2009

According to the Energy Information Administration, we need to increase the level of electric generation by renewable resources from 2.5 percent of the current total needed to 13 percent of that needed by 2030. When we see discussion of the development of such, energy solar and wind power take precedence with rare mention of hydroelectric generation.

This is surprising because the Department of Energy published a series of reports beginning in 1994 summarizing surveys of the potential for hydroelectric generation throughout the country. A focus of the DOE reports has been the identification of specific sites where defined amounts of electric generation can be realized. These reports list the generation capabilities from: 1) existing facilities such as Hoover Dam, 2) Sites where dams exist but not currently used for generation and 3) Flowing water areas where hydroelectric generation could be developed. The results show that hundreds of millions of watts that could be developed across the nation by focusing only on sites with impoundments not currently used for generation. Development at those sites can be carried out at minimal costs.

To bring the case closer to home, see the U. S. Hydropower Resource Assessment for Colorado authored by James E. Francfort in May 1994. In this report, 251 sites are identified for hydropower potentials with capacities ranging from 0.5 kilowatts (KW) to 125 megawatts (MW) with a total of 665 MW. By looking only at those with impoundments there would still be 94 with a cumulative total of 150MW.

By focusing only on the Poudre River drainage in Larimer County and citing only two of 21 possible examples, we have impoundments or diversions like: the Horsetooth dam outlet with an annual generation capacity of 2700 MWh (million watt hours) and the Cache la Poudre impoundments with an annual generation capacity of 125 MWh. To develop those capabilities, turbines, generators, converters to change the dc power to ac and couplings to the electric grid of the region are needed.

Even more striking are the reports comparing capital and maintenance costs of hydropower systems with those for wind and solar facilities. In general, the reports indicate that the hydroelectric facilities costs are nominally 25 percent of, or less than, the same costs for wind and solar. In other words the costs of hydroelectric installations may be recovered in a shorter time.

On this basis, it is difficult to understand why there is no apparent emphasis on using flowing water as a renewable resource for electric generation.

For those with access to flowing water without existing impoundments and those using irrigation systems, it is possible to develop their own individual systems without major engineering feats. See the many Handbooks for Hydropower Development that you can access through Google. Two that are particularly useful are the "On-farm Hydroelectric Generation Fact Sheet" published by British Columbia and the www.smallhydropower.com/manual. These publications demonstrate how to evaluate the potential of your site for developing an economical hydropower system.

I urge all agencies and individuals with the possibility of developing hydropower to explore what can be done. Those not directly involved are urged to press this issue where possible.

Rod Skogerboe is a professor and chairman emeritus of Colorado State University.
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