photo: Dan Huntington via flickr
The environmental problems with large-scale hydropower are well documented, with small-scale hydro often seen as a more benign way to exploit the power of rivers for electricity. However, as the Wall Street Journal points out, when you start putting hundreds of small-scale hydropower projects together the impact builds, and won't equal the gains from just improving what's already there:500 Potential Small-Scale Sites Identified
WSJ highlights the small (7.5 MW, enough for 3,500-7,500 homes) and remote (5 miles from any town) Youngs Creek hydropower project in Washington state as a potential sign of things to come.
Small hydro plants like Youngs Creek are sprouting up across the country, with around 500 potential sites identified by a federal study in Washington state alone. Power managers are seeking ways to meet the growing demand for electricity without turning to sources like coal plants that are widely thought to contribute to global warming.
Gotta love the WSJ's slightly conditional language about coal and climate change, but moving on...
Efficiency Improvements = 2,500 MW More Power
All told, the US Hydropower Resource Assessment for Washington (done in 1997) says that by simply improving efficiency at existing hydropower plants, and adding electricity generation capability to current non-generating dams, some 2,500 MW could be added to the state's prodigious hydropower capacity.
However, developing all of the state's identified yet untapped hydropower sites, including all the small-scale ones, would only add 762 MW.
Efficiency a Too Often Overlooked Tool
The original article goes on the discuss the pros (potential backup for wind power) and cons (en masse, disruption of rivers for wildlife and rafters) of small-scale hydro, and while it's an interesting read, you can really stop here.
The whole thing illustrates a point made over and over again, most recently by President Obama's science advisor: Improving efficiency of things we already have can be one of the most powerful ways to address our future energy needs.
Whether that's improving existing hydropower, making our buildings more energy efficient, or structuring our towns,cities and farms to reduce the need for so much private transportation, energy efficiency should be in the first tier of energy options.
More: Wall Street Journal
Hydropower on China's Nu River, Alternatives to Big Dams (Video)
Computer Models Improve Salmon Passage at Hydropower Dams
US Has Gotten More New Energy from Efficiency Improvements Than All Supply Side Expansion Combined: Obama Science Advisor
Just How Many Trillions of Dollars Can Energy Efficiency Save Us?