Hydropower: A Versatile Alternative

Photo by Francisco Kemeny on Unsplash

Hydroelectricity is a type of renewable energy that has been around for quite some time and in many shapes, from waterwheels to the massive Three Gorges Dam in China. As climate change and scarcity lower the utility of fossil fuels, we must adopt more sustainable ways of producing electricity to meet demand more efficiently.

Though hydropower has key benefits over other renewable energy sources, such as providing electricity generation continuously, traditional designs for hydropower can damage the environment around them. To mitigate consequences, we have to look at main problems caused by typical hydroelectric models.

We can agree that hydroelectric power is significantly better for the environment than fossil fuels, as are any other renewable solutions. When discussing renewables, however, an impasse is reached when looking at which type is the most efficient and have less unintended consequences.

The problem with typical hydroelectric designs is the disruption of the natural flow of water. Though they can provide large amounts of electricity continuously, a dam is needed due to the size of the plant. This is detrimental to wildlife and local communities, as areas will need to be flooded to accommodate a dam.

Large-scale hydroelectric power plants are also expensive to build. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, hydroelectric power had the highest average cost of construction per energy output compared to any other energy source in the United States in 2016. This, paired with the fact that storage hydroelectric plants can only be built in very specific areas means that leveraging this renewable source at scale might not be feasible or viable if typical designs are used.

There are alternatives to dams and big hydroelectric plants that do not flood the areas behind it or interfere with farming and wildlife, such as microhydropower. This type of hydroelectric energy production takes advantage of smaller turbines that have little to no impact to its surroundings, often being integrated into a river system without the need to store water in a dam.

Turbulent, a micro-hydroelectric company based in Belgium, develops decentralized, small turbines that can be installed along a river and without a dam. These turbines can be connected to a grid in remote areas, increasing access to electricity while minimizing impact to the area around it.

Rather than increase the storage of water to meet electricity demand, the number of turbines alongside a river is increased. At this scale, and due to the decentralized model, these turbines eliminate the risk of flooding and cause minimal disruption to the surrounding area and wildlife. According to the company’s website, the turbines also do not harm fish and other aquatic life due to a slow rate of pressure difference over the turbine’s blades.

Another alternative is to look to the ocean for scalability and reduced impact. According to the Smithsonian, the oceans cover about 71% of the Earth’s surface. By predicting where and when the most powerful waves and currents will occur, we strategize the installation of kinetic-based generators, focusing on areas where the output of energy is higher than the cost of installation to maximize efficiency and minimize cost and impact.

Many different systems are available for harnessing the power of waves or currents. For example, Netherlands-based company SeaQurrent developed a kite-like device named TidalKite™to harness kinetic power from ocean currents.

A scaled model of the device was successfully tested by SeaQurrent in 2018. According to the company, the device‘s size and the depth of installation are customizeable, which allows for maximization of energy output. At the same time, the operating speed of the kite minimizes impact to sea life and sea bed.

When compared to fossil fuels, hydroelectric power is still preferable. While there certainly are negative consequences associated with dams, not all hydroelectric power solutions involve their use.

Smaller scale, decentralized systems can be used to power areas near rivers, while hydrokinetic systems can power coastal areas without disrupting wildlife or natural water flow or displacing communities due to flooding. If these technologies are paired with solar, wind, and nuclear energy production in other areas can ensure a safe and dependable transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.