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New DoE report supports the retrofitting of non-powered dams in the USA

A new report released by the US Department of Energy in July, based on research by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), identifies the potential and key development challenges in retrofitting non-powered US dams. While there are more than 92 000 dams in the USA, the vast majority (about 89 000) do not generate electricity through hydropower.

The researchers at ORNL are assessing the viability of retrofitting some of these non-powered dams (NPDs), which could add up to 12 GW of additional electricity to the grid, which would be enough to power nine million homes. The goal is to accelerate design approaches and innovations that increase energy from hydropower,  while ensuring environmental compatibility and economic feasibility. Key challenges identified include: aging infrastructure, dam design limitations, costs, timelines, as well as environmental considerations.

“Hydropower has more than 100 years of history in the USA,” said Scott DeNeale of ORNL. “DoE’s continued investments position the industry well to power untapped water infrastructure while achieving low-impact renewable energy growth.”

Because this research is funded by the DoE Water Power Technologies Office, adding hydropower to non-powered dams is among the primary objectives for research investment.

The new report provides background information regarding NPD development in the USA, including an overview of the NPD population, development potential, and recent development. It also summarizes challenges and opportunities facing NPD retrofit development, highlights the importance of maintaining or improving stream and dam functionality, notes key NPD characteristics, describes NPD retrofit methods, and identifies innovation areas for spurring future NPD retrofit development. One section of the report describes exemplary design principles and concepts for the retrofits that could apply to a wide range of NPD projects.

This report serves as a part of early-phase research on NPD retrofit development, aimed toward spurring additional, follow-on efforts to address specific development challenges, capitalize on development opportunities, and inspire innovation. As documented in the DoE’s ‘Hydropower Vision’ report of 2016: “Transformative technical innovations able to meet the co-objectives of environmental sustainability and low-carbon energy will be critical to enable more hydropower growth.” This report is considered an important step in steering the transformation of US non-powered dam infrastructure.