It is often said that developed countries like the United States have little potential for growth in hydroelectric power generation – the US, in particular, has dammed so many rivers, that what could possibly be left? In some areas of the Pacific Northwest, the US is removing some dams that produce electricity due to environmental concerns. It is certainly the case that there is relatively little potential for new hydro mega-projects in the US. This does not mean, however, that there is nowhere left to build new hydroelectric projects. There are, in fact, several hundred megawatts of planned hydroelectric generation in the Mid-Atlantic US alone (see the map at PJM), though most of the projects would be small pumped storage facilities) We’ll walk briefly through a few examples of the hydro resource potential in the United States before taking a more global look.
First, not all dams in the US are equipped with turbines to generate electricity. There are, actually, quite a few that aren’t (see the interactive map at Energy.gov – potentially enough power generation to supply more than ten million homes. Many of these are located along major shipping routes, like the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Others are located in areas where development might not make economic sense because the power would need to be shipped across large and expensive transmission lines. Another unconventional technology – hydro-kinetics – could potentially supply enough electricity to power the state of Virginia, although these resources are highly concentrated in the Lower Mississippi River and in more remote areas such as Alaska.
Globally, the picture is very different. Developing nations with abundant hydro resources, like China, Brazil, and other South American countries, are rushing headlong into planning and building new dams. So globally, hydroelectricity is alive and well, and growing rapidly (no pun intended) – although this growth comes in fits and starts since new dams each represent a big chunk of capacity and take a long time from project start to finish. Nearly half of the world’s fifteen largest dams were built since the year 2000, with only one of those in a country other than China or Brazil (the Sayano Shuskenskaya dam in Russia was recently upgraded although the original went into place in the 1980s).
Energy from hydropower has been growing at a steady annual rate of 0.3 EJ per year since the year 2000, faster than the previous decades, but overall, hydro still accounts for just 16 EJ of the total 580 EJ we used in 2018. Some estimates suggest that if we really developed all of the economically viable hydroelectric sites, we might be able to generate as much as 50 EJ of hydroelectric energy — still a far cry from the +600 we will need in the near future. But even though hydro cannot solve all of our energy problems, it is nevertheless very important in that it supplies a relatively low-emissions, dispatchable (on-demand) energy source that can help smooth out the variability in wind and solar energy production.