Hydro Grows Around The World, And IEA Wants More

We don’t talk about hydropower much in the U.S. when we talk about renewable energy. Many states don’t even count it as renewable. But as a new International Energy Agency report highlights, around the world, hydropower is seen as a significant weapon in the battle against climate change.

Check it out: Since 2005, there’s been more new hydropower generation – around 600 terawatt-hours – than wind, bioenergy, solar and geothermal combined (less than 550 TWh between the quartet).

hydropower iea roadmap

Katse Dam in Lesotho, completed in 2009. (image via Christian Wörtz/Wikimedia Commons)

According to the IEA’s Technology Roadmap for Hydropower [PDF], global installed hydropower capacities have been growing in recent years at an average of 24.2 gigawatts per year. By the end of 2011, total capacity was at 1,067 GW and the new capacity under construction will drive the figure up to 1,300 GW by 2017.

The IEA is foursquare behind this expansion – and, in fact, it wants to see more, aiming for a doubling of hydroelectricity output by 2050, which if accomplished would prevent up to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

What about the other environmental angle? In the U.S., we know all too well how the damming of the Columbia and Snake rivers has decimated native salmon runs, and the tragedy that was the loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. In China, the Three Gorges projects, while an aid in flood control and a big power producer, is widely considered an environmental disaster.

iea hydropower roadmap

Computer simulation of the Alden Fish-Friendly Turbine (image via U.S. Department of Energy)

In the Technology Roadmap, the IEA argues that advances in hydropower technology and careful planning, design and implementation can make hydropower a truly sustainable form of energy. For instance, it cites new “fish-friendly” turbine designs like the Alden turbine, a project that has been backed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The DOE, for its part, isn’t looking to use such technology on big, new dams, however. It says it wants to modernize hydropower infrastructure in the U.S., “increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impacts at existing facilities.”

Early in the Obama administration, $30.6 million in stimulus funding went to test innovative technologies that the department said could add power generation at just 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, highly competitive for renewable energy. One of those backed projects was the Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Facility in Colorado, where two older turbines were replaced by one new unit that can put out 30 percent more energy, according to the DOE.

The DOE is also excited about the possibilities for small hydro. Last November, it announced $17 million in grants for 16 projects in 11 states, with $7.3 million of that going to 10 small hydro projects. The goal, the department said, was “to research, develop and test low-head, small hydropower technologies that can be quickly and efficiently deployed at existing nonpowered dams or constructed waterways.”

Another $6.8 million of the money was earmarked for two storage projects, where pumped storage hydropower is used to enable the integration of wind and solar energy, intermittent renewable sources that basically need to be used when they become available.

The challenge for pumped storage projects in the U.S. right now, however, is the price of natural gas, the IEA points out in its report. For pumped storage to be viable, there needs to be a big gap between the price of peak and off-peak power, and the shale gas boom has made gas-fired plants an economically attractive way to produce peak power at a relatively cheap cost. That leaves little incentive for investment in pumped storage.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply November 19, 2012


    Pumped storage in the U.S. has three revenue streams, in increasing order of importance today: value as firm capacity, value to provide ancillary (grid support) services, and arbitrage (off-peak to peak energy) value. In some cases, transmission savings is also a value. Renewable energy is a big driver. Note that arbitrage is number 3, not number 1 (which is what it was back in the old days). As older generation retires, due to age and environmental regulation, and as new generation is needed to replace it (also due in part to load growth), the better (lower cost, better located) pumped storage projects (see Gridflex Energy, for example) are primed to begin development in the U.S. today. The challenge is not natural gas prices. The challenge is with long-term thinking: few utilities and developers today get behind projects that take 8 years to get online, even if those projects will last 60 years and provide multiple benefits and attractive rate of return. Simple as that. There are exceptions, however, and we’ll be seeing the best of the new U.S. projects come along soon.

    • Reply November 19, 2012

      Pete Danko

      Interesting insights. Thanks very much for posting them.

  • Reply November 20, 2012


    I live in Kentucky right along the Ohio River where there are lots of hills leading down to the Ohio River. There was an article in the local paper recently about a new pumped storage type of power plant being considered for this area. We have the hills and we have a limestone mine about 1000 feet deep that are two requirements for the power plant and we have the Ohio River to supply water for the project. This is great as I have been thinking of ways to use the river for electric supply. There is already one hydroelectric plant located at one dam east of this area and another one being constructed at another dam west of this area.
    Also there is a new type of power generation using wind but not with a windmill in the Mid-East that is supposed to be adaptable to other sources to generate electricity including water that in my mind could be utilized in the river as well. The river flows along at about 7-9 knots and if they could use something in the curves of the river where the water is eroding away the banks on one side of the river to utilize the flow where it is strongest then we could have tremendous generation of electricity just using the river flow without building dams and maybe even reduce the impact of the river on its’ banks.
    What will be the answer for power generation is not one or two sources to generate the power but using whatever forms available on a smaller more local scale which together could be more than enough for now and well into the future.

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