Hydropower Stymied by Economics, Not Resources

July 14, 2014 By Karen Henry

hydropower-electric-energy-manageA recent study conducted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for the US Department of Energy, titled “New Stream-reach Development Resource Assessment,” found that 61 gigawatts (GW) of hydroelectric power potential exists at waterways without existing dams or diversion facilities. This value excludes Alaska, Hawaii and federally protected lands. ORNL’s hydropower resource estimates contrast with the 2 GW of additional hydropower capacity projected to be added through 2040 in the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest Annual Energy Outlook (AEO2014) Reference case.

For its study, ORNL evaluated the new stream-reach development (NSD) resource potential of more than 3 million US streams from 2011 through 2013. Using a comprehensive set of recent US geographic, topographic, hydrologic, hydropower, environmental and socio-political datasets, ORNL identified stream-reaches with high energy density and completed a topographical analysis of promising stream-reaches to estimate the characteristics of potential inundations of reservoirs. The NSD assessment focused specifically on undeveloped stream-reaches.

The report found that the highest potential hydropower resources are in the Pacific Northwest Region (32 percent), Missouri Region (15 percent) and California Region (9 percent).

The report qualified its findings by saying that the methodology alone does not produce estimates of generation, cost or potential impacts of sufficient accuracy to determine project-specific feasibility or to justify investments. EIA’s AEO2014 Reference case, however, does consider market and policy hurdles that can limit actual development of a new hydroelectric power plant. While resource potential quantifies maximum feasible capacity additions, current EIA projections suggest that much of the undeveloped hydro resources may not be economically feasible in the near- or mid-term. The ORNL report provides new information to assess the technical potential of hydropower and improve the understanding of resources that can take advantage of new hydropower technologies.

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