Hydro Power: Clean, Quiet, and Plentiful

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Source: USGS, 2007

This is a photo of Lock and Dam No. 7 on the Mississippi River just a few miles up-river from La Crosse, WI. Several years ago Gundersen Health System attempted to pursue a low-head, hydro kinetic project at this location and conducted some feasibility studies and initial project development work. Unfortunately, several factors developed that prevented that project from moving forward. When you look at this photo, you can see the energy in the turbulence on the downstream side of the dam’s gates.  This is a reminder of the untapped, clean, renewable power source that our nation has in its rivers. As part of our feasibility work at the site, several of us took weekly water quality measurements (with permission from the Army Corps of Engineers) and got a close-up view of this turbulence behind the roller gates of the dam. There is an awesome and breathtaking amount of power in that river. Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find an operational hydro project on the Mississippi…you can count them on one hand. Unlike some other, intermittent, renewable energy sources, hydro power can be counted on to produce power 24 hours per day, most days of the year. It is also clean, quiet, and could be abundantly plentiful in our nation’s rivers.

Decades ago our country invested in a number of large, retention dam projects that were partially justified on the energy that they could produce. Many of these projects are still operational and have become popular tourist destinations. However, the projects caused some unintended consequences on the habitat and species on those rivers. Old habitat disappeared and new habitat was created. Delicate aquatic species and fish were challenged or threatened or killed in new ways. Anglers, hunters, recreationists, wetland habitat, local economies, and navigation were all impacted. Some of these effects were positive and others were not. The projects precipitated new legislation and regulations to control how new hydro dam projects could be implemented to minimize the negative effects to the multiple stakeholders involved in river ecosystems.

 Today, the permitting and licensing process for a new hydro project has an astounding amount of work, time, cost, and uncertainty associated with it. Stakeholder emotions are as high as ever but time changes things and we must keep our minds open to new possibilities. Today’s hydro kinetic and low-head hydro technologies utilize the axial flow of the river, rather than vertical depth to drive a turbine, reducing the need for large retention dams. These new systems can be deployed in existing structures or in a “run-of-river” mode. New countermeasures have developed that substantially reduce fish kill or fish migration concerns. There are new techniques that weren’t available a decade or more ago. We should explore these and try to resolve issues that may remain.

Americans have always been an ingenious people and we must work together to find a balanced solution to our energy, health, and environmental challenges. We all want clean air, clean water, robust habitat, and reliable sources of power that improve our nation’s energy independence. Each project must meet the challenge of balancing multiple goals while still serving all of the other interests that we enjoy in our natural resources. Our waterways are still a largely untapped resource on our clean energy journey. There may be an opportunity near you.

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