Hydropower, once shunned because of environmental concerns, is making a comeback
By STEPHANIE SIMON – LEADVILLE, Colo.—The giant pipes wheeze and rumble, the whoosh of water coursing through them as noisy as a freeway. The Mount Elbert hydropower plant high in the Rocky Mountains isn’t much to look at—or listen to. But to true believers, it’s a road map to a greener future.
Larissa Bender, Bureau of Reclamation
The Mount Elbert plant (center) in Colorado uses pumped storage to generate electricity. Using wind power or cheap electricity from the grid overnight, it pumps water from the lake in the foreground through underground pipes to the reservoir above the plant. At times of high demand, it runs the water back down through the plant and its turbines to make electricity. Hydropower, shunned just a few years ago as an environmental scourge, is experiencing a remarkable resurgence in the U.S. Dams are still viewed warily; in fact, Congress is considering dismantling four hydroelectric dams blamed for depleting salmon in the Klamath River basin in southern Oregon and northern California.
But engineers and entrepreneurs are pressing an alternative view of hydropower that doesn’t involve new dams. They argue that plenty of efficient, economical energy can be wrung from other water resources, including ocean waves, free-flowing rivers, irrigation ditches—even the effluent discharged from wastewater treatment facilities. There’s a surge of interest, too, in adding small power plants to dams built years ago for flood control or navigation—as well as in turning reservoirs into battery packs of sorts, releasing energy when the grid needs it most.
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Globally, hydropower provides 16% of electricity, slightly more than nuclear power and closing in on natural gas, according to the London-based International Hydropower Association.
In the U.S., by contrast, hydropower now provides about 7% of electricity generation. All other renewable sources combined account for about 3%.
Even without building large dams, expanding efforts to draw power from water could add 40,000 megawatts to the grid by 2025, says the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit research firm in Palo Alto, Calif. That’s the equivalent of putting at least two dozen new nuclear power plants online.
Pouring It On
Such estimates are stirring action. The U.S. Department of Energy spent nothing on hydropower research as recently as 2007 but allocated $50 million this year. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued 50 preliminary permits for small hydro projects last year, up from 15 in 2007. At least two dozen states have mandated that utilities draw more power from renewable sources—and many include small hydropower as an option, along with wind and solar. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter recently announced an agreement between his state and the federal government that will streamline the permitting process for developing small hydropower projects in Colorado.
The Department of Energy estimates a new hydro project in 2016 would generate power at a cost of $120 per megawatt-hour. By contrast, the cost per megawatt-hour would be $150 at a wind farm going online that year and nearly $400 at a photovoltaic solar array. (Those figures don’t take into account various tax incentives meant to offset the cost of renewable energy, especially wind and solar.) Hydro also has technical advantages over other renewables. Daily water flow in many areas is far more predictable than wind or sunshine. It’s relatively easy to store the energy pent up in water so it can be released when the grid needs it most. And certain types of hydro plants can rev up from low power to full capacity within seconds.
“There remains tremendous untapped potential in North America,” says Don Erpenbeck, a vice president at MWH, a global hydropower construction and engineering firm in Broomfield, Colo. “After decades of delay, we are starting to realize that potential.” But Mr. Erpenbeck adds that years-long waits for federal permits and high capital costs make hydropower a tough sell to some utilities and investors. Maximizing water energy in the U.S., he says, “is going to take some guts.”
Countries such as Brazil and China remain committed to large hydroelectric dams and are forging ahead with big projects. Yet they are also looking at smaller solutions favored by environmentalists. The International Hydropower Association estimates that North America has developed nearly 70% of its available hydropower resources and Europe 75%. But the group sees huge potential in South America, Asia and especially Africa, where just 7% of resources have been developed.
In the U.S., one strategy gaining popularity is to add power plants to some of the 80,000 existing dams that don’t have hydroelectric capacity. Technological advances like turbines that are gentler on fish and oxygen-injection systems that help balance aquatic ecosystems have won favor even among some environmental groups. In one such project, American Municipal Power Inc. is spending $2 billion to add power plants to three dams on the Ohio River and invest in additional hydropower elsewhere. The utility’s CEO, Marc Gerken, says the new hydropower will cost more initially than coal or natural gas. But after the construction costs are paid off in 30 years, the utility will enjoy cheap power for several decades because the fuel—the rushing river—is essentially free and the plant is designed to run without much maintenance for 60 or 70 years. AMP, based in Columbus, Ohio, is a nonprofit corporation owned and operated by municipal utilities in the six states the company serves.
Other technologies are more speculative. A much-ballyhooed experiment that involved suspending a turbine from a barge in the Mississippi River didn’t prove to be worth expanding. The turbine is generating power, but Hydro Green Energy LLC, the Houston-based start-up that developed the device, says it has moved on to more promising ventures. “It’s still a power-producing, money-making device,” but the economics don’t support expansion, says Vice President Mark Stover. Several companies are experimenting with “low-head” turbines that can pull energy from relatively small volumes of water dropping as little as five feet over natural or man-made falls. One such project, launched by Natel Energy Inc. of Alameda, Calif., uses low-head technology to extract energy from an Arizona irrigation canal. Federal scientists say some of these approaches look promising but need more study. “With these new technologies, nobody knows what their environmental impacts might be,” says Doug Hall, who manages the water-energy program at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.
A less-experimental technology, dating back more than a century, is also gaining currency as a means to store energy and back up the grid: pumped storage, the system used by the Mount Elbert hydro plant outside Denver. The plant, sitting on the jewel-like Twin Lakes and managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, plays a key role in keeping lights on and air conditioners humming across the West.
At night, when demand on the power grid is low, the Mount Elbert plant sucks water from the lakes, sometimes using wind power to pump that water up into a reservoir above the plant. The reservoir acts as a liquid battery—a huge pool of potential energy. As the day warms up and the grid shows signs of strain, workers begin to release the water down a 470-foot drop, through devices that turn the pent-up energy into usable electricity. The water eventually pours back into the lakes, where it can be recycled into power again the next evening. Pumped storage is quite popular abroad; China has 2,200 projects under construction, and India and Ukraine aren’t far behind. An analysis by MWH shows that countries as varied as Romania, Thailand, Switzerland, South Africa and Italy are also moving heavily into pumped-storage construction. The U.S. has lagged, but federal authorities saw a surge in permit applications in 2008 and again so far this year.
“No new dams are being built,” says Dave Sabo, a senior adviser with the Bureau of Reclamation. But just about every other approach to hydropower, he says, is being studied and tested intensively. Says Mr. Sabo, “All this stuff is in play right now—pretty heavily.” Ms. Simon is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s Dallas bureau. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Alex Salmond turn Scotland into ‘world’s first hydro-economy’
Alex Salmond told the Scottish parliament that he wanted to ‘give Scottish Water room to grow’. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA
The state-owned utility Scottish Water is to be given new powers to build windfarms, hydro schemes and “green” power stations in partnership and competition with established energy companies. The company, one of the country’s last remaining state-owned firms, could generate £300m or more in extra revenues by using its 80,000 acres of land and vast pipe network for renewable energy projects. The proposal was unveiled by Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, in his government’s last legislative programme before next May’s Scottish elections. He claimed it would turn Scotland into “the world’s first hydro-economy – wisely exploiting our water to help drive our economy”.
Salmond is resisting pressure to convert Scottish Water into a mutualised company under public ownership, similar to Welsh Water, to generate much-needed revenue and offset cuts of up to £3.7bn expected in next month’s spending review. The Conservatives and Salmond’s own economic advisers believe mutualisation would immediately raise up to £3bn for the Treasury, with £1bn going to the Scottish government, and save the taxpayer £140m a year in loans.
Salmond, an enthusiast for renewable energy investment, said that the company would remain entirely in public ownership, while having much greater freedom to exploit commercial opportunities that would eventually allow it to become self-financing and self-sufficient. “They have identified potential for new economic activity in other business areas of some hundreds of millions in the medium term,” he told the Scottish parliament. “If we give Scottish Water room to grow, then we have the makings of a great Scottish company, in public ownership.”
Scottish Water, which has annual revenues of about £1bn and assets worth £5.5bn, is the UK’s fourth-largest water company. It owns about 80,000 acres, including high ground with great potential value for onshore wind and hydro schemes. The company hopes the legislation proposed by Salmond will allow its fledgling commercial services division, called Harmony, to drive its new energy projects. The Tories hope to amend the water bill with Labour support, forcing the SNP to mutualise the company.
The utility is also in talks about joint projects with some of the largest players in renewables and potential competitors, which are thought to include Scottish and Southern Energy and ScottishPower. Richard Ackroyd, the company’s chief executive, said: “Our success in reducing our carbon footprint and expanding our work into renewables and recycling is helping to put Scottish Water in a position where it can make a real contribution to the environmental challenges facing Scotland.”
Scottish and Southern Energy, the UK’s largest hydro-electricity producer, would not comment directly on Scottish Water’s entry into the energy market. “There are other people who are becoming players in the market all the time; we wouldn’t have any comment to make on Scottish Water becoming part of that,” a spokeswoman said.
A spokesman for ScottishPower’s renewables arm welcomed Scottish Water’s involvement, saying: “Scotland has a wealth of renewable energy opportunities and we are keen to see the country fulfil its renewables potential. Investment from both the public and private sector will be critical in achieving this.” guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
PGE’s largest renewable energy project complete
PORTLAND, Ore.— Portland General Electric Company today announced the final phase of its Biglow Canyon Wind Farm is complete, and all 217 turbines of the project are available to generate power for PGE customers. Biglow Canyon represents PGE’s largest renewable project, with a total installed capacity of 450 megawatts. Given the variability of wind power, the plant is expected to produce an average of around 150 MW – enough to power the homes of about 125,000 average PGE residential customers.
“Biglow Canyon Wind Farm is an important component of PGE’s diverse portfolio of energy resources,” said Jim Piro, PGE president and CEO. “We are pleased to have completed construction of this significant project that not only reflects the values of our customers, but also helps PGE meet Oregon’s Renewable Energy Standard, which requires us to supply 15 percent of the electricity our customers use from renewable resources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025.”
In 2008, approximately 2 percent of the company’s total retail load requirement was provided by wind resources, which included the first phase of Biglow Canyon and the power PGE purchased on contract from the Klondike II and Vansycle Ridge wind farms, both in Oregon. The utility’s current Integrated Resource Plan calls for renewable resources to make up approximately 9 percent of the company’s total retail load by the end of 2010 with the completion of Biglow Canyon in its entirety and the existing wind power purchase agreements.
“PGE is proud to have completed one of the largest wind projects in the Pacific Northwest – constructed on time and under budget,” Piro said.
The $1 billion project located on 25,000 acres near Wasco in Sherman County, Ore., was built in three phases. Phase 1, completed in December 2007, is comprised of 76 Vestas wind turbines and has an installed capacity of 125 MW. Phase 2, comprised of 65 Siemens wind turbines with an installed capacity of approximately 150 MW, was completed and placed in-service in August 2009. The final phase of the project, completed in August 2010, added an additional 76 Siemens wind turbines and installed capacity of 175 MW to the project.
In addition to providing carbon-free and emissions-free generation of electric power, the wind farm has created jobs, is providing income for local businesses, generating tax revenues for local government, and providing easement payments to landowners. The Biglow Canyon project was developed by Orion Energy LLC and built, owned and operated by PGE.
Ocean Waves Offer a “Massive Resource” to Meet Australia’s Power Needs
SYDNEY: If just 10% of the near-shore wave energy available along Australia’s Southern coastline could be converted into electricity, half of the country’s current electricity consumption would be met, say CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) scientists.
Committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60% of year 2000 levels by 2050, the Australian Government aims to produce 45,000 gigawatt-hours/year of additional renewable energy before 2020. “This total energy quota could be achieved using wave energy alone,” said lead author Mark Hemer of the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship, Melbourne, “if 10% of the available wave energy resource over a 1,000km section of the Southern Australian margin were converted to electricity.”
Australia lags behind in encouraging wave energy
The World Energy Council identified Australia’s southern margin as one of the world’s most promising sites for wave-energy generation, but governmental policies are still relatively underdeveloped.
“Several countries, particularly in Europe, have much more advanced policies to support uptake of the wave energy industry. This research shows that Australia’s wave energy resource is considerably larger than these other countries which are actively encouraging the industry,” said Hemer.
“As an example, the UK’s wave energy resource has been estimated to be about 50 TWh/yr. This study has shown that Australia’s southern has a sustained wave energy resource of 1329 TWh/yr.”
Finding Australia’s best wave energy locations.
The study used long-term archives from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an operational wave model called WaveWatch III to measure significant wave height, peak wave period and peak wave direction, and The Simulating Waves Near-shore (SWAN) wave model to measure the spatial distribution of wave energy.
Using the 10-year, six-hourly archives collected by WaveWatch III from 1997 to 2006, the researchers calculated spectral wave measurements along the South-Western Australian margin, which extends from Perth to Hobart to determine deep-water wave energy potential, publishing their findings in the Journal of Renewable Sustainable Energy.
Using the SWAN wave model to assess how shallow water processes such as refraction, shoaling and bottom friction can affect the spatial distribution of wave energy, they were able to quantify the near-shore wave energy potential of certain locations, identifying the optimal places for energy extraction.
Once operational, wave energy has the potential to provide a clean source of renewable energy whilst posing minimal impacts on the environment and no greenhouse gas emissions.
Unlike wind turbines and solar farms, which are highly visible and have been criticised for spoiling coastal areas for recreational value, wave energy conversion devices can be hidden entirely underwater, or can protrude only a few metres above the ocean surface, depending on the design.
However, there are still uncertainties as to the long-term affect of these wave energy converters on marine and coastal environments.
Question marks over cost
The research by Mark Hemer and David Griffith from CSIRO aim to inform governmental policy by providing estimates on Australia’s near-shore wave energy potential, and to narrow the search for the most suitable locations for commercialised wave energy converters.”A whole range of Government policies are required to support the wave energy industry including R&D, manufacturing and deployment.”
“An independent, comprehensive map of the wave energy resource is just one component to support that process, and that is what this research aimed to do,” said Hemer.
Technology still needed
While this research has identified wave energy as a massive low-carbon resource for Australia to use in the future, it doesn’t address the economic or engineering feasibility of wave energy converting devices. CSIRO are currently working on this research. “In terms of developing wave energy technologies, normally many renewable energy sites are far away from where the energy is needed and it looks to be the case here in Australia,” said AbuBakr S. Bahaj from the University of Southampton. “This will have implication to energy cost due to the large investment needed to bringing the generated energy to population centres.”
The Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office announced a $117 million loan guarantee through the Recovery Act for the Kahuku Wind Power Project in Hawaii. A project Secretary Chu calls “another example of America’s leadership in the global clean energy economy.”
While Hawaii has been harnessing wind power for years, Kahuku Wind is expected to be the first project to meet wind and solar energy reliability requirements set by the Hawaiian Electric Company; currently the only electric utility operating on the island of Oahu. Development of this innovative 30 megawatt (MW) wind power plant is expected to create over 200 jobs and supply clean electricity to roughly 7,700 Ohau households per year – a huge impact on an area that relies heavily on imported fossil fuels for power – and help pave the way for future clean energy projects in Hawaii.
“There is an urgent need to establish renewable energy sources in Hawaii and the state has mapped an ambitious plan to achieve this. The federal loan guarantee announced today boosts this effort,” said Congresswoman Mazie K. Hirono. “The Kahuku Wind Project is the type of project that Hawaii needs to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and keep billions of dollars in our economy.”
In order to meet energy demands, the Kahuku Wind Project will combine two innovative technologies: the Clipper Liberty wind turbine system – the largest wind turbine manufactured in the U.S. – and a new battery system designed to help smooth out changes in power output caused by varying wind levels. This first of its kind installation will allow Kahuku to store energy generated on windy days for later delivery and could become an example for wind developers across the country to follow. Turbine blades being delivered to Kahuku. Photo credit First Wind.
Kahuku Wind is expected to begin generating energy for Oahu as early as the end of this year and has already sold the future electricity to the Hawaiian Electric Company. Upon completion, the wind power plant will have the capacity to reduce carbon emissions by approximately 96 million pounds per year.
Kahuku Wind is just one of 13 clean energy projects supported by loan guarantees through the Department’s Loan Programs Office. For more information, please visit www.lgprogram.energy.gov. Liz Meckes is a New Media Specialist with the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Energy.