Hydro Is Back

By Jeanne Hilsinger, Chairman, Management Board, Mavel, a.s.; President, Mavel Americas Inc.

Power from hydroelectric plants fueled the industrial revolution in America and the world during the first half of the 20th Century. The Francis turbine was invented in Lowell, Mass. in 1848, the Pelton turbine during the California gold rush in the 1870s and the Kaplan a half century later in the Czech Republic. By the middle of the 20th Century, hydroelectric power provided almost half the electricity in the U.S. and much of the world’s power as well.

Today, hydroelectric power provides 7 to 8 percent of electricity consumed in the U.S. This is significantly less than the 60 percent contribution of hydroelectric power in Canada and global contribution of 21 percent.

With indications of climate change and global initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy is on the rise. This includes hydroelectric power. An International Energy Agency report forecasts global growth in hydroelectric power of about 60 percent over 45 years.

This does not surprise the 200,000 to 300,000 Americans employed in the hydroelectric power field. We know that the momentum in hydroelectric power is building,both in refurbishment of existing hydroelectric power plants to maximize power and the development of new sites at existing dams to bring new renewable/clean power online.

And, we know why. It is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

1. We are No. 1. We know that hydroelectric power is No. 1 in terms of installed base, efficiency and equipment life.

Hydroelectric power is No. 1 in terms of installed capacity. Research by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that there is currently 808,000 MW of hydroelectric capacity in operation or under development globally and notes that this accounts for 90 percent of generation from all renewable sources. In the U.S., the installed capacity is 100,000 MW providing 70 percent of renewable energy consumed.

Hydropower is No. 1 in proven equipment life. Hydroelectric power equipment/technology is expected to last 30 or more years. Thousands of plants around the world are testimony. Many are still in operation utilizing equipment that is 30, 50 or even 100 years old.

Hydropower is No. 1 in efficiency. The electricity produced from 1 MW of installed capacity in a hydroelectric power plant in any given year is about double the average of other renewable energy sources.

2. Two cents. We know that hydroelectric power is an inexpensive energy resource. The October 2010 quarterly report of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) noted that the leveled cost of producing one kilowatt hour of hydroelectric power is two cents. This compares to costs of other renewable and non-renewable sources of between six and 13.5 cents.

3. Three Percent. We know that only 3 percent of the 79,000 existing dams in the U.S. are powered. This means that the existing infrastructure at our rivers is underutilized and provides significant potential for added energy from hydroelectric power without building any new dams. A study by Navigant Consulting indicated there is the technical potential to quadruple the existing capacity by 2025 with much of the increase coming from small hydroelectric power, projects under 30 MW.

While the rediscovery of hydroelectric power in most regions of the world is well underway, there are signs that the momentum to realize the underutilized hydroelectric power potential in the U.S. has begun.

  • There is support within the Federal Government. At a White House Energy Forum in late 2009 Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu said, “Hydropower is one of the best kept secrets: (It’s) astoundingly efficient … an incredible opportunity and actually the lowest cost clean energy option.” Hydroelectric power is now included in tax credits for new renewable energy developments and government agencies are cooperating closely to expedite licensing processes.
  • Developers/owners are planning expansions and new developments. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has seen a surge in applications for new permits over the past three years.
  • Hydroelectric power production is increasing. Statistics by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory show that the increase in energy created by hydroelectric power from 2008 to 2009 grew faster in terms of megawatt-hours consumed than all the other renewable energy sources combined.
  • New technologies are being explored. Kinetic, tidal, wave and other new hydropower applications are being developed.
  • Equipment providers are expanding. American producers are expanding capacity and European producers are setting up manufacturing in the U.S.

Mavel, a.s., a global supplier of turbines (Pelton, Francis and Kaplan) and related technology for hydroelectric power plants 30 MW and under, has begun to see signs of a resurgence in hydroelectric power in the U.S.

In October, Mavel commissioned its first turbine in the U.S. In December, Mavel signed contracts for delivery of five Kaplan turbines to be installed at two Army Corps of Engineer dams in Illinois. Another four projects for the delivery of seven turbines for projects from 100 kW to over 10 MW have been awarded.

The momentum has begun with small hydroelectric power development and refurbishment leading the way. Pumped storage, larger developments and new technologies, however, are not far behind.

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