Although other renewable sources of energy may be growing at a faster rate, more electricity continues to be generated in the U.S. by conventional hydropower than by wind, solar and geothermal power combined. Hydropower accounts for 52 percent of the nation’s renewable electricity power generation and 7 percent of total electricity generation. Hydropower is the safest and cleanest source of power generated in the world today.
To date, a large percentage of the potential hydropower capacity has been developed in North America and Europe. However, considerable potential capacity remains in Africa, Asia (specifically China and India) and Latin America.
A major challenge stalling the accelerated growth of the hydropower industry is the large upfront capital investment required to build a new plant. Complicating matters is that the industry is heavily regulated and new investments are subject to the significant site, feasibility and environmental assessments by FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Committee). A primary goal of America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 was to expedite the licensing process in an effort to shorten the start-up process for new plants.
Even though hydropower is considered less variable than wind or solar energy, over the long-term, it remains dependent on the level of precipitation and/ or water run-off. To realize the full potential of water power, innovative technologies are needed to harness resources from a wide array of water sources, from streams to oceans.
Download The Future of Renewable Energy Relies on Innovations Focused on Increasing Output and Decreasing Costs White Paper to learn about emerging technologies designed to increase the profitability and reliability of renewable hydropower plants.
Most promising water power technologies
The Office of Energy Efficiency has identified what it classifies as the five most promising water technologies. These include:
1. Modular hydropower--uses separate, similar components that can be constructed offsite and then easily integrated into new or existing sites and scaled to greater capacities. The result is reduced installation and civil works costs, as well as less environmental impact
2. Powering non-powered dams--approximately 80,000 dams in the US don’t produce power, of which 50,000 have been identified as viable for power generation. Turbines could be added to these sites to efficiently add new hydropower capacity to the grid. (The powering of non-powered dams is another focus area of America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018.)
3. Pumped-storage hydropower (PSH)--works like a big battery, pumping water to a higher elevation, which can then be released at any time to turn turbines and meet energy demand.
4. Tidal energy--although there are no permanent tidal power plants in the US as of June 2017, the Energy Department has funded research to develop new ways to install and maintain tidal power plants, specifically in the Pacific Northwest and the Atlantic Northeast regions. The Department is specifically looking to optimize a way to deploy and retrieve three tidal turbines together as a single system with one on-water operation without diver support.
5. Wave Energy--ocean waves pack immense energy but researchers have yet to identify a technology that can safely, reliably and cost-effectively convert wave energy into usable electricity.
Turbines are changing the game
Turbines that turn underwater to capture the hydrokinetic energy of the tide offer tremendous potential (as compared with the more traditional hydro-powered dams that rely on gravity to create energy). Water has a higher density than air which creates a bigger mass flow and generates more energy. To date, however, they have not proven cost-efficient or reliable over the long-term because underwater systems are harder to maintain and subject to corrosion.
Other hydrokinetic technologies leverage the motion of currents in the ocean, as well as streams and rivers. There has also been some exploration in small-scale hydropower using a cross-flow turbine to operate at the exact point where water spills over a non-powered dam.
Smarter maintenance technologies increase efficiencies
As is the case with other types of renewable power plants, there are additional opportunities for smarter maintenance strategies in hydropower plants. Advances in digitalization software have significantly improved in this area, analyzing previous failures to predict future issues and downtime. Beyond this, however, the industry needs more durable components that last longer to streamline maintenance requirements. While seemingly simplistic, such durability is critical to lowering long-term costs since most hydro plants are remotely located and more expensive to maintain.
Other approaches to streamlining maintenance include the greater use of flange systems to reduce the amount of welding required. A variety of newer piping solutions are also impacting maintenance budgets. Consider, for example, actuation systems that open wells and gates at plants and typically use a hydraulic cylinder and lots of pipes to connect with the cylinder. An autonomous system directly on the cylinder that’s driven by electricity could significantly reduce the amount of piping required, saving material costs and maintenance time.
Parflange F37 Non-welded Tube & Piping System - The innovative system is comprised of seamless cold drawn tube and pipe, a broad range of interconnect components, valves, and clamps, and is fully supported by Parker’s Complete Piping Solutions fabrication services.
Key to the future of renewable hydropower energy
The benefits of hydropower as renewable energy are well documented and include:
Generating energy that produces no greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels and reduces some types of air pollution.
Diversifying energy supply and reducing dependence on imported fuels.
Creating economic development and jobs in manufacturing, installation and more based on demand.
But renewable hydropower continues to face major challenges. Download The Future of Renewable Energy Relies on Innovations Focused on Increasing Output and Decreasing Costs white paper to learn about emerging technologies designed to increase the profitability and reliability of renewable hydropower plants in order to make them a truly viable long-term alternative.
Article contributed by Parker Energy Team
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