Hydropower Research

NREL's research is helping ensure that both hydropower and pumped storage hydropower technologies are ready for future grid development.

Photo of the Hoover Dam during the day.

As the amount of wind and solar increases on our nation's grid, so does the system's need for increased flexibility. Moreover, this requirement is expected to accelerate as states strive to meet their renewable portfolio standard goals. Hydropower, with its high capacity and ability to provide medium- and long-term storage, is one of the few grid technologies well-positioned to meet these needs.


Hydropower, with its ability to shift energy over weeks and months and, in some areas, years, is an enabling technology for high renewables systems. 

Preliminary capacity expansion and grid operations studies show that as renewables exceed 80% penetration, hydropower's high capacity, longer-duration (seasonal) storage is expected to be key to the economics and resilience of these future grids.

Pumped Storage Hydropower

Pumped storage hydropower (PSH) is by far the largest source of energy storage on the grid, and with advances such as closed-loop design, variable speed pumping, and ternary motor-generator sets, it is well-matched to provide reliability and resilience to the grid.

However, PSH also comes with some challenges: large capital investments, long lead times, and environmental concerns. NREL is working to provide increased value while also mitigating risks by shortening commissioning times and reducing PSH’s environmental footprint.

Hydropower Research Areas

NREL works in multiple research areas to make sure that both existing and new facilities are able to maximize their utility going forward:

The HydroWIRES Initiative

The HydroWIRES Initiative

NREL plays a key role in the Department of Energy's Water Power Technologies Office's HydroWIRES Initiative, providing leadership for both the Capabilities and Constraints, and Operations and Planning research areas.

Energy and Economic Analysis: Making the Financial Case

Energy and Economic Analysis: Making the Financial Case

NREL's energy and economic analysis of waterpower technologies leverages decades of experience in system performance modeling, cost estimation, and tool building throughout the renewable energy sector.

Grid Integration: Hydropower's Role in the Next Generation Grid

NREL's hydropower team performs cutting edge research in grid integration research including hydropower's role in grid planning, operations modeling, and reliability and resilience research. We leverage the successes from our wind and solar grid integration studies to the benefit of the hydropower industry, and NREL provides leadership for two of The Department of Energy's Water Power Technology Office's four HydroWIRES research areas.

Market Acceleration: Expanding Education, Stimulating Innovation

NREL's market acceleration capabilities help smooth the regulatory approval process as well as foster and inspire the next generation of water power professionals.

Regulatory Analysis: Navigating the Policies which Drive Development

NREL's legal and regulatory analysis helps stakeholders and decision-makers better understand hydropower-related regulatory requirements, techniques for navigating the regulatory process, and supporting quantitative and qualitative data.


Greg Stark

Researcher V – Hydropower Technical Lead