Rather than remove dams, as some folks continue to advocate, how about converting some existing dams into electricity producers?
It might come as a surprise to residents of the Pacific Northwest, who rely heavily on hydropower, but only 3 percent of the nation’s 80,000 dams are designed to produce electricity. However, 70 percent of the non-powered dams have the potential to produce electricity.
A new report (PDF) from the U.S. Department of Energy claims that converting a small fraction of those dams into electricity generators could be an affordable way to add a large amount of renewable energy to America’s grid at a relatively low price. Most of that potential is concentrated in just 100 dams.
“The abundance, cost, and environmental favorability of [non-powered dams], combined with the reliability and predictability of hydropower, make these dams a highly attractive source for expanding the nation’s renewable energy supply,” according to the DOE report.
Officials examined more than 54,000 of the 80,000-plus non-power generating dams and determined they have the potential to add up to 12,000 megawatts of new renewable capacity to the system.
Washington has 10 of them, according to the Spokesman-Review, including the Howard Hanson Dam in King County. According to the study, it has the potential to generate 26 megawatts, or enough electricity to power 26,000 homes.
Lawmakers are interested in the potential. In a unanimous, bipartisan 372-0 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act. If passed by the Senate, the bill would expedite the licensing of projects that retrofit existing dams and pipelines for energy generation. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., co-authored the legislation.
While the 10 non-generating dams in Washington wouldn’t rival the Grand Coulee Dam’s 6,800 megawatt electricity generation that AWB President Don Brunell mentioned in a weekly column this spring, converting these dams for other purposes would provide an “environmentally sound and logical” method to produce clean energy.