Out with the New, In with the Old0

Zach Shahan | Wed Jan 4 2012 |

From helping villagers cast iron in ancient China to serving as a central energy source in Medieval Europe, for thousands of years the water wheel has provided power to millions of people.

But as the Industrial Revolution ushered in new technology, the common water wheel was abandoned for more advanced means of energy production. Today, micro hydro (or hydroelectric) technology is picking up where the water wheel left off.

Macro problems, micro solutions

With the ability to power a small community, micro hydro relies on a steady flow of water, making it a highly efficient source of renewable energy.

By using existing dams, or building “run-of-river” projects that require no dams at all, creating a robust micro hydropower system requires little as far as new infrastructure.

We keep telling lawmakers that there’s tremendous growth potential in the industry. We are far from tapped out.

“There are over 81,000 dams around the U.S. and only 2,400 of them have any electrical generating capacity,” Stephen Lacey of Climate Progress reports. “Many of the powerless 78,600 dams are close to existing infrastructure, making it easier to build and maintain a project compared with a centralized wind or solar farm located far away from where the electricity is used.”

Experts predict that hydroelectricity could produce 30,000 megawatts of decentralized, local power in the U.S. alone—enough power for up to about 30 million homes.

“We keep telling lawmakers that there’s tremendous growth potential in the industry. We are far from tapped out,” Jeff Leahey, Director of Government Affairs for the National Hydropower Association, says. “We can access existing infrastructure today and build tens of thousands of megawatts in communities around the country.”

Details matter

The success of any micro hydro installation relies on identifying which type of technology will best capture the energy produced by flowing water and efficiently turn it into electricity.

Very often, a micro hydro installation will consist of nothing more than a small pool of water at the top of waterfall with pipes leading to a generator, which can be run off of batteries.

Because of its relative simplicity and low cost, hydroelectricity is a practical solution for developing nations, where it not only provides power but opportunity as well.

While a Pelton turbine, which extracts energy from the momentum of moving water, is used for more mountainous regions, low head installations require a more propeller-based system. Ultimately, sites with a higher head are preferred because of their need for less water, smaller pipes, and little maintenance.

Powering developing nations

Because of its relative simplicity and low cost, hydroelectricity is a practical solution for developing nations, where it not only provides power but opportunity as well.

Tri Mumpuni Iskandar, Director of the People Centered Business and Economic Institute (IBEKA)—a nonprofit organization that develops small hydroelectric projects—has witnessed the transformative power of micro hydro technology.

“This technology can be very powerful,” says Mumpuni. “If we make micro hydro run properly, we generate electricity. If we generate electricity, we can generate other economic activities.”

Mumpuni and her team have implemented a number of rural electrification projects, providing electricity to more than 50 villages in Indonesia.

The future of micro hydro

While other energy sources have taken the spotlight in the past few decades, water is flowing back into discussions about how to sustainably power a growing world population.

Micro hydro isn’t going to single-handedly power the world; it’s just one piece of the pie. And there are important regulatory hurdles to get over before it can start growing in use at rates like solar and wind. But there is little doubt that micro hydro will play a more significant role in the advancement of renewable energy.

Illustration by Paul Samples.