ONE OF THE VERY FIRST USES OF HYDROELECTRIC POWER IN THE United States was illuminating Niagara Falls at night for visiting tourists, using the incandescent filament light bulb Thomas Edison invented the year before, in 1880. For anyone who has ever visited this natural wonder—a torrent averaging 635,884 gallons every second—it’s obvious there is lots of kinetic energy left over. That posed a challenge for electrical transmission, which had a range of just 10 miles—while the nearest city, Buffalo, N. Y., lay 20 miles to the south.
22 the ELECTRICAL DIS TRIBUTOR • Jun. 17 www.tEDmag.com
CURRENT / COMMODITIES
The DOE looks to add 50GW of U.S. hydro capacity. by Ken Stier
Westinghouse Electric devised a solution using its competing AC sys- tem, and by 1886 nearly 50 hydro- electric stations were operating. This allowed Theodore Roosevelt to report to Congress in 1908 that “the application of great water powers to the industrial wants of distant cities is still in its infancy, yet 15 years ago 10 miles was the limit to which elec- trical power could be transmitted, but at the present time 150 miles is very common and in one case a line of 200 miles is in use.” Vast swathes of rural America were also opened up for develop- ment. The numerous dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority, begun in 1933, were economic engines for a seven-state region particularly hard hit by the Depression. The Hoover Dam (1936) provided water for the arid Southwest and the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, completed in 1942, opened up the northwest to an industrial boom during WWII. The Grand Coulee is still the largest hydropower dam in the country, and the mighty Colum- bia River provides more than 40% of the country’s total hydropower. Al- together that’s 101GW of installed capacity, accounting for about 6% of electricity use. Hydro is not only the country’s original renewable energy source, but also still its largest: Cumulatively, from 1950 to 2015, it is the source of 85% of the country’s renewable energy. In recent years, however, this sta- ture is slipping. The United States produced less power from hydro in 2014 than in 2002. While solar and wind are growing, the hydropower sector has largely been dormant for years. Most of the best places for dams have already been built upon —or have been conserved off limits, due to awareness of how dams can negatively affect river ecosystems. But even with these new con- straints, there is still huge potential for more hydro generation, accord- © K E I T H S Z A F R A N S K I / I S T O C K