The United States produces 22 GW of pumped-storage and 78 gigawatts of conventional hydropower through approximately 2,500 dams. Currently, the country has over 80,000 non-powered dams (NPDs). NPDs are dams that do not produce electricity. Instead, they provide other needed services including,

Irrigation – This type of dam helps to control the flow of water so that farmers can regularly provide water to their crops or other plants. This is especially helpful in controlling floods or during times of low rainfall.

Locks or Water Navigation – These are devices that help to raise or lower boats and ships between waters of differing levels. Here, water is controlled in order to raise and lower different watercrafts.

Water Storage or Supply – Some dams are used to contain large amounts of water. This water is then used when or if needed.

Since NDPs are already constructed, established and functioning, adding the technology required to get the facility to produce electricity is a great way to increase or expand the United State’s clean and renewable energy supply. Converting a NPD requires less money, time and risk than building a dam structure or facility from scratch. Many NPD projects across the United States were started based on these facts. In addition, President Barak Obama’s Climate Action Plan has helped to focus energy projects on producing cleaner energy, reduce carbon emissions and within a short or quick timeframe.

Non-Powered Dams in the United States

In order to thoroughly examine the possibility of transforming DPDs into powered dams, the United States Department of Energy Wind and Water Program analyzed the existing 80,000 NPDs across the country. The report determined that there are 54,391 NPDs that have the potential for developers to turn them into powered dams. The report also found that adding power to these NPDs has the potential to increase new renewable capacity within the United States up to 12,000 megawatts. This would increase hydropower production by a hefty 15%.

The report suggests that even if 100 NPDs with the most power production potential were converted, this would increase new reliable power by 8 gigawatts. The United States Army Core of Engineers own facilities for 81 of 100 top NPDs and include major navigation locks along the Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The United States Bureau of Reclamation also owns several dams, giving them the potential to generate an additional 260 megawatts of power.

It is important to note that the study conducted by the United States Department of Energy did not cover regulatory, economic, or political challenges associated with starting a NPD conversion project. The study only examined the energy density of the water flow at particular streamline segments within the country.

Converting NPDs Along the Ohio River in 2016

There is a high concentration of dams and locks along the Ohio River. The United States Department of Energy determined (in 2012) that this area has the potential to generate about 3,000 megawatts of the total 12,000 megawatts of power that all the appropriate NPDs within the United States could produce.

Some of the largest dams along the Ohio River include,

  • Ohio River Locks & Dam 52 – Potential to generate 494.5 megawatts of power.
  • Ohio River Locks & Dam 52 – Has the potential to generate 496 megawatts of power.
  • John T Meyers Locks and Dam – Potential to generate 395.2 megawatts.

Since 2012, there have been 4 NPD projects in this area, as well as Kentucky and West Virginia. These projects include,

  1. Cannelton
  2. Meldahl
  3. Smithland (Kentucky)
  4. Willow Island (West Virginia)

It is estimated that when these projects are completed, the total hydroelectric capacity along the Ohio River will grow to 313 megawatts. This will be a total increase of 554 megawatts for the targeted dams and means that Kentucky will see an increase in hydroelectricity capacity by approximately 32%, and West Virginia will see an increase of 15%.

Converting NPDs Along the Missouri River

Missouri River Energy Services is responsible for another NPD project along the Missouri River. It is expected to be the largest hydropower project in the state of Iowa to date, and will power 18,000 homes by generating 36.4 megawatts of electricity. The project involves transforming an existing dam owned by the Army Corps of Engineers into a powered dam known as the Red Rock Hydroelectric Dam.

The dam was constructed from 1960 to 1969 in order to control flooding as well as to help support recreation and wildlife in the area. The current construction will involve inserting an approach channel and intake structure upstream of the dam. According to their project overview, “Two penstocks will run from the intake structure through penetrations in the dam to the powerhouse located just left of the existing spillway tailrace. A tailrace channel will extend from the downstream end of the powerhouse to the existing spillway tailrace. Each penstock will supply water to a vertical Kaplan-type hydraulic turbine and each turbine will be directly connected to a generator.” Each generator will then transfer the electricity through the plant and into the substation. The substation will convert 13,800 volts to 69,00 volts. Those volts will then move to the transmission grid.

The dam will continue to operate very similarly to how it has run in the past. Operators will determine the amount of water to be released (as they always have). This means all, a portion, or no water will get directed through the new hydroelectric facility.

The project is scheduled to finish in early 2018.

The Benefits to Converting Non-Powered Dams

Almost 300 megawatts of electricity generation capacity within facilities that did not previously have generating units is expected to be in place by the end of 2016. This means that 92% of the planned 320 megawatt hydroelectric capacity will be generated from converted NPDs. In comparison to the United State’s current capacity of 80,000 megawatts, this might seem like a small improvement, however, when compared to the 126 megawatts over 2006 – 2015 it is clear that great strides are being made to generate new renewable energy for the nation.

In addition to the Ohio River, there are 17 other regions that are conducive to converting NPDs within the United States. These regions include (along with their potential hydroelectric capacity),

  1. New England – 243 megawatts
  2. Mid-Atlantic – 479 megawatts
  3. South Atlantic-Gulf – 1618 megawatts
  4. Great Lakes – 156 megawatts
  5. Ohio – 3236 megawatts
  6. Tennessee – 53 megawatts
  7. Upper Mississippi – 2027
  8. Lower Mississippi – 743
  9. Souris-Red-Rainy – 58
  10. Missouri – 258
  11. Arkansas-White-Red – 1898
  12. Texas-Gulf – 608
  13. Rio Grande – 98
  14. Upper Colorado – 53
  15. Lower Colorado – 124
  16. Great Basin – 29
  17. Pacific Northwest – 225
  18. California – 156

Click here for a complete, interactive map of all the NDPs within the United States that have the potential to generate or produce hydroelectric power.