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Laying the Groundwork for Tomorrow’s Hydropower Projects: WPTO, NREL, and ORNL Focus on Foundations

Upcoming Groundbreaking Hydro Prize Incentivizes Innovation

Aug. 24, 2020

Hydropower is the original renewable energy source. And at more than 100 years old, it continues to offer great promise now and in the years to come, although new development of hydro in the United States has slowed in recent years. Reducing the costs, timelines, and risks associated with its development will help enable its continued trajectory of growth.

Hydropower Geotechnical Foundations, a report recently released by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), took a closer look at hydropower foundation design and construction. With an eye to the major challenges faced by conventional approaches, the report pinpointed several opportunities for innovation that could reduce the costs, timelines, and risks associated with hydropower foundations in the future.

The findings of this seminal study will also help guide the development of the upcoming Groundbreaking Hydro Prize. Through this prize, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and ORNL, hopes to incentivize innovators to put their creativity to work and take advantage of these unexplored opportunities to cut the cost and timetables associated with hydropower project development.

Illustration of river with American Made Water Prize logo and "Groundbreaking Hydro Prize" in text.

Taming the Hydropower Hydra

Designed to ensure both structural stability and public safety for the life of the project, hydropower foundation construction can involve a vast array of activities, ranging from water control and excavation to grouting and more.

“Foundations are central to dam safety and must be developed to minimize environmental disturbance; however, challenges in their design and construction can lead to major project delays and cost overruns, potentially jeopardizing a project’s success,” said Tessa Greco, prize administrator at NREL. “Because of the importance foundations play in achieving project success, NREL is excited to be serving as administrator for the Groundbreaking Hydro Prize.”

ORNL’s report identifies representative costs and timelines for the development of hydropower projects, documenting the current state of practice in geotechnical foundation design and construction for hydropower systems. It also highlighted geotechnical site assessment as an essential practice throughout major phases of the foundation development process.

The forthcoming single-stage Groundbreaking Hydro Prize will ask competitors to submit proposals that tackle one of the three key areas identified in the ORNL report that represent both challenges and opportunities for the advancement of new hydropower facilities. Topic areas include:

  • Geotechnical Site Assessment: Activities performed to obtain information needed to design and construct a hydropower foundation system
  • Foundation Design: Process of using information from the site assessment to perform analyses and develop a cost-effective foundation system that meets the project design criteria
  • Foundation Construction: Activities performed by the contractor, from mobilization through project commissioning, to fully develop the foundation system.

Seeking Multidisciplinary Solutions

WPTO is soliciting cross-industry solutions that apply lessons learned from a diverse set of fields, from marine energy—and maritime construction, more generally—to advanced manufacturing, offshore wind, transportation, residential and commercial building industries, and beyond.

As with other breakthroughs in science and technology, daring, cross-cutting concepts could yield success, and WPTO is seeking novel, emerging, and diverse solutions from across a variety of industries with foundations experience.

By rethinking our technological approach to this century-old, reliable source of renewable energy, we can help ensure its continued growth and realize its benefits for years to come.

Read the Hydropower Geotechnical Foundation report and learn more about the upcoming Groundbreaking Hydro Prize.