According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the nation’s dams not currently being used to generate electricity could, if equipped, supply more than 12 gigawatts of power to run coffee pots, computers, and cars.
One gigawatt is enough to electrify about 300,000 homes. That’s more than seven counties the size of the 100,000-person county in which I live in southcentral Pennsylvania.
And some of the dams probably would be cost effective to upgrade and equip.
The DOE released a report this week titled “An Assessment of Energy Potential at Non-Powered Dams in the United States,” in which it analyzed more than 54,000 such dams with potential to be developed to produce hydroelectric power. In its announcement of the report, the department said, “The results indicate that if fully developed, the nation’s non-powered dams could provide enough energy to power over four million households.”
The department has posted an interactive map at http://energy.gov/articles/powering-america-s-waterways. Click on a dot and a popup tells where and when the dam was built, and how much power generating potential it has. For instance, there are 14 dam sites on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, from Pittsburgh, Pa. to the West Virginia border.
Some of the sites have relatively little potential – a megawatt or so – while others could generate some serious juice – up to nearly 100 megawatts.
One of the dams identified in Pennsylvania is the Adam T. Bower Memorial Dam, on the Susquehanna River above Sunbury. The dam – comprising multiple inflatable rubber bags anchored by concrete columns – is used during summer months to create a 3,000-acre impoundment named Lake Augusta. The Department of Energy says if that were converted to a permanent generating plant, it could produce more than 23 megawatts of electricity.
There would be other questions to be answered, however, including why the dam now is only seasonal, and what effect would be had on local and downstream communities if it were made permanent.
And how much would it cost to accomplish the conversion.
It’s difficult to say how many of the dams could be economically converted. Some could be “improved” to hold more water, and therefore generate more electricity.
But “improvement” probably would mean “made larger,” a prospect likely to meet opposition from landowners quite happy with the shoreline as it currently exists.
The nation is no stranger to drowning entire communities in the name of jobs, flood control and electricity generation. The 680-acre Lake Hammond, in Pennsylvania’s Tioga County, is said to be named for a town that lies buried beneath its surface, the result of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control effort.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, created in 1933, drowned the homes of thousands of residents of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. In return, it generates heaping helpings of electricity to 155 power companies and 57 industries and federal facilities. It also has created lucrative opportunities for marina operators and fisher-folks.
And it did that by, in the middle of the Great Depression, putting thousands of unemployed workers – to work.
It also nearly eradicated the Snail Darter, a fish about the size of a paper clip that was, at the time, endangered and at risk of being erased by TVA activities.
There are other examples: Lake Gaston, in North Carolina and Virginia, is a 20,000-acre impoundment created by Gaston Dam. The dam, which created more than 300 miles of enviable high-value shoreline on the Roanoke River, generates about 220 megawatts of electricity.
And in Pennsylvania, Raystown Lake is a mecca for anglers and summer campers. The first dam was built in 1905 by a group of private investors interested in generating electricity and improving the value of the new shoreland real estate. It was taken over by the Corps of Engineers, and now is touted as an instrument of flood control, in addition to generating about 21 megawatts of electricity.
Hydroelectric power could offer us a cleaner alternative to fossil fuel to generate the power needed to run our computers, televisions, cooking stoves and, eventually, automobiles. Once the generating equipment is installed and operating, hydro-power seems, at least on initial perusal, pretty darned attractive. It doesn’t leak methane and other toxic gases into the atmosphere, the way natural gas production does. And the “waste” is simply warmer water that runs off downstream.
(Note: The EPA this week issued a set of regulations intended to cap fracking’s greenhouse gas emissions, but the rules are not really effective for at least two years.)
Water warmed by passage through generators poses concerns for downstream fisheries, and expanded impoundments require, probably, tax-paid funding of land buyouts for owners of shoreland about the become fish habitat. Those who own the new shoreland usually are very pleased with the new value of their property; those giving their homes to the fish, not so much.
And there will be the politicians who will decry government involvement in subsidizing any energy development which competes with oil and natural gas.
But supplying electricity to 3.5 million homes without the mandatory need to ruin large portions of land and air is something deserving of serious consideration.
Photo by subadei
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