The Hydropower Development Perspective

New development must sustain stream functions as it produces power at competitive rates.

Hydropower has a storied history in the United States and remains the largest source of renewable energy generation in the country. Though the pace of building new projects has slowed over the past decade, significant growth opportunities remain for developing small hydropower. Such development is at present a complex and uncertain undertaking, with design engineering, construction, equipment selection, environmental impact mitigation strategies, and total installed costs driven by site-specific considerations. While new small hydropower developments currently struggle to compete with alternative energy sources, an opportunity exists to transform the existing development paradigm by designing new projects that generate renewable energy at low cost while preserving and enhancing stream functionality.

Creating and deploying environmentally compatible technology that produces cost-optimized renewable power benefits is the existential challenge for new hydropower projects. By successfully balancing these two concepts, small hydropower development can present an attractive stakeholder investment opportunity while maintaining the power of the stream.

A Novel Approach to Technology and Design Solutions

Sustaining stream functionality and achieving cost competitiveness through modularity and standardization.

The Standard Modular Hydropower (SMH) hypothesis is that new small hydropower development can be realized by shifting conventional thinking in four key areas:

  • Reduce the reliance on site-specific equipment and structures by incorporating modularity across the facility, utilizing standard technologies and solutions that scale across many sites
  • Minimize the use of customization by standardizing the siting, design, review, approval, installation, operation, and assessment of new modular facilities
  • Shift the design philosophy from mitigating impacts of in-stream energy infrastructure to sustaining the important hydrologic, hydraulic, geomorphic, physiochemical, and ecologic processes that occur in streams and watersheds
  • Build a flexible framework that codifies diverse stakeholder opinions into suitability criteria and thresholds of acceptance for new development

Together, these elements strike a new path toward environmentally compatible, cost-optimized hydropower project development.

More information on the SMH philosophy, research activities, and expected outcomes are provided on the Research page.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy