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New tools support hydropower development opportunities across the nation

A screenshot of the NPD Explorer App shows a preponderance of non-powered dam locations in light blue, with the highest concentration in dark blue. New hydropower tools such as this one enable key stakeholders to research and visualize available hydropower opportunities across the country.

As the demand for more renewable energy increases in response to environmental and economic conditions around the world, officials are increasingly looking to hydropower for sustainable electricity generation.

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed a suite of online tools and publications to increase awareness and development of smaller hydropower capabilities, called standard modular hydropower (SMH), that benefit both energy needs and the environment.

ORNL’s SMH technology concept provides a standardized, plug-and-play capability that reduces the need for costly custom builds while preserving the ecological and environmental functionality of the waterway. As an alternative to traditional hydropower facilities, SMH facilities can be built on site by stacking modular components specific to the stream or waterway that facilitate hydropower generation while enabling safe passage of fish and other aquatic species, as well as maintaining the area for recreational use. SMH technology can apply to new in-stream hydropower development and retrofits to non-powered dam (NPD) sites.

As a key deliverable of ORNL’s SMH Technology Acceleration project, these new tools enable key stakeholders to explore which sites offer the greatest potential for hydropower generation using SMH technology and explore relevant data for both new stream development and NPD sites.

WaterSHED – The WaterSHED (water allocation tool enabling rapid small hydropower environmental design) application was developed to virtually demonstrate the design, operation, and feasibility of initiating new, smaller hydropower projects at sites with existing water infrastructure and new streams. Users can input specific criteria and requirements to begin a simulation of a virtual SMH facility.

SMH Explorer App – This geo-visual analytics platform enables users to secure insights of potential stream-reach hydropower sites by analyzing energy, water, and environmental factors, including foundation, generation, water quality, fish passage, recreation, and sediment types and characteristics.

NPD Explorer App – Functioning as a development sandbox, this application allows users to search specific criteria and download data summaries when researching hydropower viability among NPDs. The application provides geospatial data layers, a common map, and interactive graphics to better visualize search results.

NPDamCAT – From this custom analysis and taxonomy tool (CAT), users can group and classify NPDs to review characteristics and data, add preferences and priorities, retrieve data, and download results. The tool enables users to easily select relevant criteria such as environmental conditions, hydropower capacity opportunities, specific regions, and age of streams. Working in connection with the NPD Explorer App, this tool leverages the same data set, the NPD Characteristics Inventory.

All of these tools can be found at HydroSource, ORNL’s comprehensive data repository to better inform hydropower infrastructure and policy decisions.

“These tools are not the culmination of our project but the beginning of an ongoing initiative to bring all parties together to advance not only the SMH concept but the broader expansion of hydropower throughout the United States,” said Scott DeNeale, ORNL water resources engineer and principal investigator on the SMH project. “Our partnerships in this effort spanned industry, environmental, and municipal stakeholders, all working together to develop real-world technologies that ensure hydropower growth with minimal impact to the environment.”

Expanding hydropower from both new stream-reach development and NPDs offers significant renewable energy growth potential. According to a 2014 ORNL study, nearly 80 GW of additional hydropower could be added along undeveloped US streams, most of which are considered low-head, meaning they are 30 ft or less from the hydraulic head, for which SMH technologies are applicable. A similar 2012 ORNL resource assessment determined that approximately 12 GW of additional hydropower could be added to NPDs across the nation.

Despite these sizable opportunities, hydropower development remains somewhat tempered as cited in ORNL’s 2022 US Hydropower Development Pipeline Data, which showed 46 MW of new stream-reach development projects under consideration, and an additional 1,436 MW from NPDs.

These new tools can facilitate investigation into SMH opportunities for a clean energy future.

ORNL’s SMH project is funded by the DOE Water Power Technologies Office.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle LLC for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit -Mimi McHale