All About Hydropower

What is hydropower? Is there a lot of it in the U.S.? Are hydropower facilities only federally owned?

These are just a few of the questions we often get asked at NHA.

Below you will find answers to these and many more frequently asked questions.

There are a number of different hydropower technologies, but at a fundamental level, all of them produce electricity using the force of moving water, be it from waves, tides, river flows or impounded reservoirs. In conduit projects, for example, small turbines – the devices that create electricity – are placed into existing infrastructure like irrigation canals. The water flows through the turbines, turning blades which are connected to a shaft that spins a generator and generates power that is then sent out to homes and businesses through transmission lines.

The term “hydropower” covers a wide variety of technologies, ranging from large to small and old to new. Most commonly associated with the term are dams, which store water behind a generating facility and harnesses its power through one of many different types of turbines. This type of conventional hydropower project represents the vast majority of U.S. hydropower generation. An profusion of new technologies have entered the market or seen major advances in recent years, including ocean wave, tidal and hydrokinetic power (tapping the power of flowing water, much like wind power does with moving air). For more information on different hydropower technologies, click here.

While these technologies are currently in various stages of research and development, with some early stage commercial deployment, industry estimates have pegged U.S. wave potential at 90 GW. In Florida alone, an estimated 4 to 10 GW of potential is thought possible, according to a University of Florida study. Other recent reports have pegged the potential of these new technologies at 10% of U.S. electricity needs.

The U.S. hydropower industry is committed to future growth that is sustainable in every way. In the future the hydropower industry will focus on projects that maximize the benefits of our existing infrastructure, such as adding new, more efficient generating equipment to existing facilitiesand adding electricity generating capacity to dams that have none today. Other areas of growth include closed-loop pumped storage systems, which allow for additional renewable generation to be added to the grid, and new technologies like hydrokinetic, tidal and wave power that have the potential to open up vast amounts of renewable generation for the U.S.

The “fuel” powering hydroelectric facilities is clean, renewable, zero-emission water. Using hydropower avoids 225 million metric tons of carbon pollution in the U.S. each year – equal to the output of approximately 42 million passenger cars. For more information on how hydropower is a America’s largest sustainable energy source, click here.

NHA has long recognized that the future of the hydropower industry is deeply entwined with maintaining ecosystems and fish species for future generations. As the hydropower industry has invested heavily in the protection of fish over the past few decades, it has proved that hydropower and healthy rivers are compatible. In the process, NHA has worked hard to form an important relationship with the NGO community committed to protecting aquatic species. Through compliance with endangered species laws and voluntary equipment installation, our hydropower infrastructure continues to grow even more sustainable. To learn more about that commitment and the mitigation methods being deployed across the country, click here.

The U.S. hydropower industry could install 60,000 MW of new capacity by 2025 depending on policy changes. That only 15% of the total untapped hydropower resource potential in the U.S., meaning hydropower can remain a growing energy source for decades to come.

NHA supports policies that help lower barriers to developing the incredible potential of our hydropower resources. NHA supports making the regulatory approval process for development more efficient,; recognizing hydropower’s value in our energy policy; tax incentives that encourage private sector investment and development in hydropower; and R&D support for new advancements in technology and operations. To learn more about the hydropower industry’s key issues, click here.

The U.S. had 101,000 megawatts of conventional hydropower and pumped storage capacity as of 2014, according to the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. With 1 MW enough to power 750-1,000 average American homes according to Electric Power Supply Association, that’s enough generating capacity to produce electricity for roughly 75 to 101 million homes.

The hydropower industry currently accounts for approximately 200,000-300,000 jobs according to a study by Navigant Consulting Inc.i And according to the same study, with the right policies, the industry could add 1.4 million new cumulative direct, indirect and induced full time equivalents (FTE) jobs by 2025.

According to the Department of Energy’s statistical body, the Energy Information Administration, hydropower accounted for 7% of U.S. electric generation in 2013, representing 52% of renewable generation that year.

According to a recent analysis by Navigant Consulting, Inc. that compared the levelized cost of power from a number of electricity sources, hydropower was the most affordable at $.02/kWh (kilowatt hour). Hydropower’s levelized cost – which accounts for an energy-generating system’s lifetime costs such as initial investment, operations, maintenance and cost of fuel – even beats that of coal-fired power plants according to the study. To learn more about hydropower’s affordability, click here.

Our hydropower resources power homes and businesses in all 50 U.S. states. Some states, especially in the Pacific Northwest, generate the majority of their power from hydropower resources.  Check out the Hydropower Industry Snapshot to see where existing hydropower, potential sites, and supply chain companies are located from coast-to-coast. Click here for a list of the top 10 hydropower generating states. To learn about our most available renewable resource, click here.

52% of hydropower generation is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers and other federal entities, built not only for power generation but also for other benefits such as water supply, flood control and navigation. The other 48% is owned by private and public utilities, municipalities and others. Many of these owners comprise the diverse membership of NHA. It’s important to note that expanding generation on either the public or privately held systems would benefit a long and broad supply chain of from turbine manufacturers, trucking and construction companies, to engineering firms and other service providers.

Today the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, operates a total of 133 hydroelectric power plants – representing 8% of the country’s hydroelectric facilities.  The other 92% of U.S. hydroelectric facilities are operated by the private sector, public utilities, and state or local governments.  According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates non-federal projects, these entities operate 1,623 hydropower facilities in every region of the U.S.  In addition to providing electricity to all 50 states, these facilities also come in all shapes and sizes, most of them much smaller than the large federal dams that we typically associate with hydropower.  FERC records show that approximately 89% of our non-federal facilities have a capacity of less than 30 MW.