Upgrading dams could light 30 million US homes
Author: Scott DiSavino
According to Voith Siemens Hydro Power, campaigning to upgrade generating equipment at the nation's hydropower projects, an additional 30,000 megawatts could be squeezed from those dams, enough to run about 30 million homes.
That adds up to eight times more power than currently flows from all the wind power facilities in the country combined.
"In North America we are rehabilitating existing dams, most of which were built 50 or 60 years ago, by installing new technology to extend their life and upgrade capacity," Hermut Kormann, president and chief executive of Voith AG, told Reuters in an interview last week.
Despite general agreement that hydropower is one of the cleanest and cheapest sources of electricity, the United States stopped building big dams decades ago due to a scarcity of suitable sites and growing opposition to damming more rivers.
But upgrading equipment at existing dams could prove a gold mine for the world's major hydropower turbine makers.
Voith Siemens, the world's second biggest hydropower turbine maker, is a joint venture between German industrial giants Voith and Siemens AG .
While the company is still building massive hydroelectric projects in developing nations like China, Brazil and India, it is refurbishing dams in the United States and Europe.
Voith Siemens' major competitors in the sector include industrial giants ABB Alstom Power, a joint venture between Swiss ABB AB and French Alstom , Austrian VA Technologie AG and General Electric Co. of the United States.
There are more than 3,500 hydropower units scattered across the United States, which generate about 100,000 megawatts of electricity or 13 percent of the nation's total.
Most repowering projects in the United States have involved increasing the capacity of a nuclear reactor or converting an oil or coal unit to cleaner-burning natural gas.
The modernization of the hydropower stations has largely been ignored, but can add 20,000 to 30,000 megawatts of renewable generating capacity at existing dams, according data from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Moreover, Kormann said Voith Siemens is building "environmentally friendly" hydropower turbines.
"We know Americans take the environment seriously, and we have tried hard to make our turbines environmentally friendly," said Kormann.
Hydropower projects are often criticized by environmental groups because they harm fish, destroy natural habitat, flood valleys and canyons and restrict downstream water flows.
To mitigate the environmental impacts of hydroelectric facilities, Voith Siemens has developed turbines for Pacific Northwest dams that the company claims nearly double the survival rate of fish that end up going through the dams.
In addition, the company has developed an aerating turbine that increases oxygen levels in water downstream from the dam, solving a problem for aquatic life in the Southeast where many hydroelectric facilities use water from the bottom of a reservoir where oxygen levels are low.
In the United States and Europe, there has been a push for renewable sources of energy versus fossil fuels and nuclear, but long-standing opposition to damming wild rivers has prevented the construction of more dams.
Modernizing the dams solves many problems. It increases the use of renewable resources without impeding the flow of additional rivers, while taking steps to improve fish migration.