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Hydropower

Hydropower has been used for more than 120 years to generate electricity, and many campuses take advantage of hydropower resources.

The following links go to sections that describe how hydropower may fit into your climate action plans.

Hydropower installations can run for many years with very little maintenance. The technology is well established and equipment and replacement parts are widely available.

Campus Hydropower Options

Research campuses can take advantage of several opportunities to install and operate hydropower technologies:

  • Redevelop a former hydropower site: The most cost-effective hydropower installation involves adding piping, turbines, and generators to a hydropower site that is no longer in service. This arrangement takes advantage of a dam or impediment.

  • Install a run-of-the-river system: Campuses with rivers or large streams can investigate the feasibility of a power system that diverts some of the stream flow through a turbine. This type of installation does not necessarily require a dam. Most U.S. rivers that are suitable for this application are in the Northeast.

  • Invest in a regional plant: A campus can take advantage of economies of scale by partnering with neighboring organizations or communities to invest in regional hydropower plants that may be a considerable distance from the campus. This arrangement would require a power purchase agreement with the local power company.

Considerations for Campus Installations

Is hydropower right for your campus?
  • Is it located near a river or large stream?
  • Are staffs available to handle permitting issues?
  • Does your campus need a hydraulics laboratory?
  • Is financing available?

Research campuses should consider the following before undertaking an assessment or hydropower installation.

Waterway Resources

New technologies offer low-impact hydropower applications that can be leveraged in large waterways. To determine whether your campus is near a waterway resource, first conduct an assessment. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) commissioned a study that identified 6000 potential hydropower sites titled, U.S. Hydropower Resource Assessment Final Report.

Permitting

Multiple federal entities, including DOE, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and several other agencies, play a role in hydropower permitting. Permitting and gaining approval to install technologies can be difficult and time consuming.

Hydraulics Laboratory

Campus hydropower facilities offer excellent opportunities to integrate hydropower plants with research curricula on hydraulics, power generation, and turbo machinery.

Financing

Hydropower installations require a large commitment of capital, so financing can represent a critical factor in determining the feasibility of a particular project. Options usually include self-financing, issuing bonds, or obtaining third-party financing from the private sector.

Leading Example: Cornell University Hydropower Project

River water rushes down a mountainside, flowing into a river. On the side of the river is a small concrete building with power lines feeding out of the roof. Water flows from an opening in the building, showing hydropower production.

Cornell University leverages hydropower for electricity production through this run-of-the-river facility located on Fall Creek in Ithaca, New York.
Credit: Cornell University

Cornell University has generated electricity through hydropower since 1904, with periodic improvements to turbines, electrical gear, and the plant. The 1-megawatt (MW) plant was originally able to meet the needs of the campus and the City of Ithaca. It now provides about 2% of the campus's annual electricity consumption. (See a diagram of the power plant, which uses water from Beebe Lake, one-quarter mile away.

The hydroelectric plant is the run-of-the-river (diversion) type, which means that no water is stored behind a dam. In 2008, the campus completed control upgrades that increased output by 20%, and the facility now produces more than 1 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) each year. Addition improvements are planned for the near future.

The plant is a long-time fixture on the Cornell campus; it is also a part of the university's climate action plan. A history of the Cornell hydropower plant is available on the university's website.

Examples of other research campus hydropower projects follow:

Here you can find links to technology basics and to organizations that support hydropower development.

Basics

Currently, more than 2400 hydropower systems produce electricity across the United States. According to Idaho National Laboratory, almost half of these are operated by private organizations that are not electric utilities. The following resources explain the fundamentals of hydropower and ocean energy technologies:

Hydropower Organizations

Detailed information about hydropower is available through these organizations:

Memorandum of Understanding Affecting Federal Facilities

  • The U.S. Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, and Army Corps of Engineers have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to promote the development of hydropower. By signing a memorandum of understanding, the federal agencies agree to focus on increasing energy generation at federally-owned facilities, such as research laboratories, while exploring opportunities for new development of low-impact hydropower.