How the Hydropower Vision Can Drive Growth

By Timothy Welch

Hydropower has been around for more than a century and is the largest source of clean, renewable electricity in the U.S. Providing about 7% of the country’s electricity, hydropower supports more than 143,000 jobs in engineering, manufacturing, construction and utility operations and maintenance in the U.S. – all while improving the environment and strengthening the economy. Additionally, pumped-storage hydropower represents 97% of all energy storage in the U.S., offering the flexibility and reliability the electricity grid needs to deliver affordable clean energy to American homes and businesses.

What does the future of hydropower look like? To answer that question, over the past two years the U.S. Department of Energy collaborated with more than 300 experts from over 150 hydropower industry companies, environmental organizations, state and federal governmental agencies, academic institutions, electric power system operators, research institutions and other stakeholders. These experts conducted a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive analysis to evaluate pathways for hydropower in the U.S. through 2030 and 2050.

The Hydropower Vision report – released in July at HydroVision International – defines the societal, environmental and economic benefits of hydropower in a scenario where U.S. hydropower could grow from 101 GW of combined generating and storage capacity in 2015 to nearly 150 GW by 2050, with more than 50% of this growth by 2030.

Per the findings in Hydropower Vision: A New Chapter for America’s 1st Renewable Electricity Source, this growth potential can be attributed to:

  • 4.8 GW of development on non-powered dams;
  • 6.3 GW in upgrades on existing hydropower;
  • 35.5 GW of new pumped-storage projects; and
  • 1.75 GW in new stream-reach developments.

Other key findings of the report are:

  • Although hydropower is the nation’s oldest form of renewable electricity, many actions and efforts remain critical to further advancement of domestic hydropower as a key energy source of the future. These include continued technology development that lowers costs and the availability of market mechanisms that take into account the value of the grid reliability services, air quality and reduced emissions hydropower provides.
  • Hydropower has the potential to support more than 195,000 jobs across the nation in 2050.
  • By 2050, hydropower can reduce cumulative greenhouse gas emissions by 5.6 gigatonnes – equivalent to nearly 1.2 billion passenger vehicles driven in a year – saving $209 billion from avoided global damages from climate change.
  • Hydropower can avoid the withdrawal of 30 trillion gallons of water for the electric power sector by 2050, equivalent to about 45 million Olympic-size swimming pools.
  • By 2050, hydropower can save $58 billion from avoided healthcare costs and economic damages from air pollution.
  • New pumped-storage hydropower technology can further integrate variable generation resources, such as wind and solar, into the national power grid because of its ability to provide grid flexibility, reliability and reserve capacity.
  • Developing a comprehensive set of science-based environmental performance metrics and assessment tools will further the design and sustainable operation of hydropower projects.

Roadmap to the future

Although the Hydropower Vision report does not make policy recommendations, it does provide a roadmap that sets forth actions the hydropower industry, research community and others can take to achieve higher levels of hydropower deployment within a sustainable national energy mix.

Carrying out the roadmap actions will usher in a new era of growth in sustainable domestic hydropower, while protecting the nation’s energy, environmental and economic interests. The five “action areas” that would help achieve the Hydropower Vision include:

  • Technology Advancement: Development of innovative technologies will help reduce costs and improve both power production efficiencies and environmental performance.
  • Sustainable Development and Operation: This includes using integrated approaches that balance environmental, social and economic factors.
  • Enhanced Revenue and Market Structures: Appropriate compensation and incentives for new and existing hydropower facilities are needed given the numerous energy production and grid support services it provides.
  • Regulatory Process Optimization: This includes increasing access to shared data, making information on relevant scientific advances available, enhancing process efficiency and reducing risks and costs.
  • Enhanced Collaboration, Education and Outreach: Sharing best practices for maintaining, operating and constructing facilities and developing curricula for programs to train new hydropower professionals are needed to usher in the next era.

This video features the U.S. Department of Energy’s Jose Zayas discussing the Hydropower Vision at HydroVision International 2016.
This video features the U.S. Department of Energy’s Jose Zayas discussing the Hydropower Vision at HydroVision International 2016.

Focusing on pumped storage

America’s power grid is a complex network of power plants and transformers connected by more than 450,000 miles of transmission lines. As a major clean energy contributor, U.S. hydropower plays an important role today for electricity generation and energy storage. Hydropower operators can quickly ramp up or down and can rapidly respond to fluctuations in the demand for electricity through pumped-storage hydropower, giving utilities a cost-effective way to help incorporate more variable generators, such as wind and solar energy, into the power grid. Pumped storage is the dominant form of energy storage on the electric grid today and is the most affordable form of bulk energy storage available.

The U.S. has significant potential for developing new pumped storage resources. With an opportunity for an additional 36 GW of capacity, new pumped storage could more than double the current U.S. installed capacity of 21.6 GW for this generating resource (see Figure 1). Pumped storage was far and away the single largest category for growth potential in the Hydropower Vision report.

The value and contribution of renewable electricity generation – including hydropower, wind, and solar – continues to grow. These clean energy technologies reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change and support a domestic energy economy with U.S. manufacturing and U.S. jobs.

Engineers are developing advanced pumped storage technologies with improved capabilities, such as adjustable speeds; closed-loop systems (projects that are not continuously connected to a naturally flowing water feature); and modular designs, which can be more easily deployed in various locations and tailored to projects of different sizes. These enhancements allow pumped storage to provide grid reliability and facilitate more wind and solar by allowing grid operators to rapidly respond to variations in the amount of electricity that their mix of generators is supplying at any given time.

According to the Hydropower Vision, pumped storage is more flexible (by providing energy balancing needs), has longer facility lifetimes, and has lower operating costs than other technologies that can provide similar services to integrate variable generation resources onto the grid.

In this way, pumped-storage projects can help realize untapped renewable resource potential in America and represent an important part of our nation’s clean energy future.

Moving toward the vision

One effort already under way to help move toward this new vision is DOE’s announcement of the availability of $9.8 million in funding for up to 12 projects to develop “innovative technologies that will reduce capital costs and deployment timelines” for pumped-storage projects and technologies for powering non-powered dams. The funding is part of the Water Power Technology Office’s HydroNEXT initiative.

Non-powered dams in the U.S. represent a significant source of untapped hydroelectric potential, DOE said, with only about 3% of the country’s dam infrastructure currently generating power. Adding power to these facilities can often be achieved at lower costs and in shorter timeframes than development requiring new dam construction. “However, the majority of these non-powered dams have challenges such as low heads, low/varying inflows, and environmental considerations that existing technologies are not able to overcome in a cost-effective way.”

The office intends to meet those obstacles through “innovative turbine/generator units that can operate at low heads and across a variety of flows can be incorporated with modular, standard designs to improve technical performance and reduce civil works costs and deployment timelines.”

EERE said it is particularly interested in new adjustable-speed pumped-storage technologies that provide additional flexibility beyond that afforded by existing fixed-speed units. The full application submission deadline for this funding opportunity was Oct. 7.

Another effort DOE has undertaken is development of the Hydropower Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop (RAPID) Toolkit, which makes permitting information easily accessible from one online location. The Hydropower RAPID Toolkit:

  • Features links to permit applications, processes, manuals, and related information
  • Presents information on federal and state permits and regulatory approvals required for the development of hydropower projects
  • Provides best practices to help navigate the regulatory process
  • Helps potentially reduce the permitting timeline by facilitating communication among all project stakeholders-project developers, permitting agency personnel at all jurisdiction levels, and the public
  • Helps potentially lower total project costs and investor risk by clarifying the permitting process, which encourages future hydropower development.

This toolkit is available at

Tim Welch is hydropower program manager, Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, U.S. Department of Energy.

Companies with Hydropower VISION

Supporting 50 GW by 2050 Companies with Hydropower VISION The companies featured here are providing solutions and/or making contributions that can help the hydroelectric industry reach the goal of 50 GW of new hydropower by 2050.

Based in Montana, Absaroka Energy is developing the closed-loop Gordon Butte Pumped Storage Hydro Project. Pumped storage is a robust and rechargeable utility-scale sized battery that is unique in its capability to firm up variable energy generation. The Gordon Butte facility will have an installed capacity of 400 MW utilizing best-in-class Ternary equipment – allowing the plant to move seamlessly between pumping and generating. This will provide fast-acting capacity, stability and reliability for the northwest regional grid. Final design is to be completed in 2017 and construction start is anticipated to begin in 2018. For more information, please contact Carl Borgquist, 406-585-3006.

Mead & Hunt is an employee-owned engineering consulting firm with approximately 540 employees in more than 30 offices nationwide. Since 1900, we have expanded our expertise to meet clients’ evolving needs. That expertise includes hydropower engineering – we offer an integrated multidisciplinary approach to solutions for energy projects. The recently completed USACE Mahoning Creek Dam, where new hydro was added to an existing dam, and the John Redmond new hydro feasibility study showcase the breadth of our capabilities. We offer initial strategic planning through operational life, delivering planning, environmental, engineering, commissioning, operations and decommissioning services for both existing and new hydropower.

Hatch has over 90 years of experience with 45,000 MW of large and small hydropower facilities constructed worldwide. Our staff covers all related engineering disciplines, including transmission and construction supervision and management, and we engage in all phases of hydropower projects, from reconnaissance studies to feasibility, detailed design and construction management. Hatch also has a global procurement group mitigating cost and schedule risks for our clients, who include government, public electrical utilities, private developers and major international funding institutions.

Hatch’s range of services in hydropower covers all types of contractual arrangements including EPCM, EPC, Owner’s Engineer and Operational Assistance.

Mechanical Solutions, Inc. provides design, analysis, testing and troubleshooting services for OEMs, government agencies and operators in the hydropower industry. With over 20 years’ experience in fluid machinery and systems, MSI is recognized for their solutions to customer challenges throughout the world. Specific expertise includes hydroturbine rerate designs for improved performance with existing infrastructure, cavitation damage modeling and optimization, flowpath design and optimization for new or existing systems, mechanical design and analysis, and fluid-structural interaction analysis. MSI’s specialized troubleshooting capabilities are often used to solve longstanding, elusive machinery problems, and combine accurate diagnoses with engineered, ready-to-implement solutions.

HDR has partnered with clients to shape communities and push the boundaries of what’s possible since 1917. We got into hydropower at the ground level, and we’ve been partnered with industry-leading clients on groundbreaking projects ever since. Our experts know what it takes to safely deliver a project that’ll optimize your performance without breaking the bank. Whether you’re trying to figure out what the latest regulatory requirements mean for you, exploring a new pumped storage project, or want to know more about emerging hydrokinetic technologies, our team is here to propel you forward.

We’re active members of the communities we serve. That’s why at MWH, now part of Stantec, we always design with community in mind. Our community unites approximately 22,000 employees in over 400 locations across six continents. Our work as architects, engineers, and consultants from initial project concept through design, construction, and commissioning begins at the intersection of community, creativity, and client relationships.

For nearly 100 years, we’ve responsibly developed dam and hydropower projects throughout the world. Our local knowledge and relationships, coupled with our global expertise, qualify us to go anywhere to solve clients’ challenges in creative and personalized ways.

We offer a new Fiber Optics monitoring solution that detects cavitation of turbine blades, open and short circuits in the stator and vibration due to misalignment and rotor distortion. Multiple distributed sensors are mounted along the sequence of end windings on each phase and one distributed fiber sensor is wrapped around the bearing housing. The concept of the long gauge was demonstrated by wrapping the fiber around the base of a wind turbine tower and detecting the gear box, gen-set and blade vibration. It is therefore potentially the most cost-effective solution for large hydro plants.

From water to wire, from planning through servicing, Voith has been a committed partner to the global expansion of hydropower for 150 years. With an unwavering focus on advancing the hydroelectric industry, Voith research and design engineers have reached new levels of energy output while developing efficient and environmentally-sustainable solutions.

Today, our team continues to combine reliable, state-of-the-art technology with digital tools and automation to bring greater reliability and improved plant control to industry operators. Past, present and future – Voith Hydro supports the Hydropower Vision by inspiring technology for generations.

WEG Electric Corp supports our nation’s hydropower vision with hydro generator solutions from 100 kVA to over 70 MVA, in-situ generator repowering/refurbishment and in-factory generator service, and a full range of generator step-up transformers. We are an American company supported by our factories, engineers, project managers, and field service teams in the United States and around the world. WEG is proud of our many hydropower installations and our commitment to do what’s right. It will be our pleasure to apply our expertise and full breadth of support to contribute to the success of your hydropower project! Contact | 1-678-372-9460

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