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Could dams make the US energy independent?

15/03/2018
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The TL;DR on this is ‘yes’.

But, if you want to find out why, carry on reading…
The Trump administration is pushing for energy independence and hydro power could play a key role in achieving this.
The Trump administration is continuing to push for energy independence, enacting policies to hugely expand offshore drilling, encouraging fracking to unlock ever more onshore oil and gas production, and examining ways to diversify the country’s energy mix.

However, with the World Bank announcing that it will be ending all support of the oil and gas industry, and increasing geopolitical tensions (particularly with the Middle East), perhaps it’s time for the US to look towards hydro to help them make the final leap to total energy independence?

So, how big is this leap to energy independence? A recent report by Deloitte looking at the US’s energy matrix suggested that:

“When imports from Canada and Mexico are subtracted, the real major energy independence and security challenges of the US energy portfolio amount to between 10 and 15 percent of our overall energy supplies- a challenge that is well within the economic, industrial and policy capabilities of the United States to tackle.”
The US has a huge number of dams that are not currently being used to generate electricity.
Your next question may be, why use Hydro? Because there’s a huge amount of untapped potential across the US.

In 2016, installed hydro capacity in the US accounted for 7 percent of total US electricity generation. And, to-date, development of hydro has been relatively slow, with hydro capacity only increasing by approximately 200MW a year.

Those that think that tapping hydro energy would require a vastly expensive building programme of dams should think again. The majority of existing dams in the US- more than 90 percent, or 80,000 dams- are not used to produce electricity. It’s clear that there’s a huge opportunity here to unleash the potential of these dams to help the US reach energy independence.

As Jeff Leahey, deputy director of the National Hydropower Association, says:

“The dam has already been built, the impacts have already been felt. Those dams are going to be there for the long haul, but right now they’re just not generating any power… we think that’s a prime opportunity for near-term growth in the hydropower industry.”

The case for utilising these existing dams is further bolstered by a Department of Energy report which found that simply installing hydropower plants at existing dams could add 12GW of new power to the US without any major new infrastructure.
Converting existing dams into hydroelectric power plants could lead to a huge jobs boom for US engineers.
Job creation

Aside from energy independence, the development of hydropower would be great news for the US engineering workforce. According to figures from the National Hydropower Association the US hydropower industry currently employs up to 300,000 workers, from project development to manufacturing to facilities operations and maintenance. A recent report from Navigant Consulting suggests that if the US unlocks the untapped potential of the country’s existing dam network, upwards of 1.4 million cumulative jobs could be created by 2025.
The US hydropower industry currently employs up to 300,000 people.
Energy storage

Whilst the electricity generation potential of hydro is huge, there is also another potential benefit- energy storage using a method called pumped storage.

As the US is moving towards cleaner energy generation through the use of renewables such as wind and solar, it is having to contend with a significant problem- intermittency. By their very nature, renewables only generate electricity intermittently, whilst the grid requires at least a base load of energy at all times. To combat this problem the majority of renewables rely on fast-ramping natural gas plants (or similar) to quickly step in when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. However, this results in the burning of fossil fuels, which rather defeats the purpose of wind turbines and solar panels in the first place.

Although companies such as Tesla are working on battery-based energy storage, this technology is still in its infancy and has not been deployed on a particularly large scale. At present pumped storage is the only viable utility scale storage solution that the US could deploy to tackle the problem of renewable intermittency.

Pumped storage stores energy in the form of the gravitational potential energy of water, which is pumped from a lower elevation reservoir to a higher elevation. When electricity demand reaches a peak, or renewable energy generation is dormant, the stored water is released through turbines to produce electric power. Although the pumping of the water to a higher elevation makes pumped storage plants net consumers of energy overall, such systems increase revenues by selling more electricity during periods of peak demand, when electricity prices are highest. Pumped storage also helps to ameliorate the renewable energy’s issues with intermittency.
Hydro could make a much bigger contribution to the country's overall energy matrix.
Hydro: the answer to US energy independence?

As we’ve seen, there are certainly some very compelling arguments for the use of hydro power to help the US achieve energy independence. However, critics point out that dams can create pollution and ecosystem damage.

These criticisms aside though, on balance the positives of hydro outweigh the negatives- particularly if it can help the US achieve much sought-after energy independence, cleaner energy, the improved integration of renewables into the grid, and a more diverse energy mix.

Power & Energy jobs in the US with Fircroft.

If you’re looking to charge up your career with a new job in the US power and energy industry, register with Fircroft today.
Recent Comments
Thanks for sharing…
Boom Lift, 05 April 2018
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Could dams make the US energy independent? - Time to read 5 min
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