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Hydro Power

Doug Houseman's picture
Visionary and innovator in the utility industry and grid modernization Burns & McDonnell

I have a broad background in utilities and energy. I worked for Capgemini in the Energy Practice for more than 15 years. During that time I rose to the position of CTO of the 12,000 person...

  • Member since 2017
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  • Mar 24, 2022

This is something that any country can do, and with local resources, creating local jobs.

The US has 80,000 dams of which 2,400 produce electricity. Yes, they are the biggest, tallest dams in the US. But that leaves 77,600 dams that do not produce. Yes, yes I know some people want to remove all dams. 

Those 77,600 dams are not all created equal, but the ones that are large enough could provide 60 Gigawatts in Capacity. The same energy as 7,500,000 acres of solar based on the US average capacity factor for solar. 

These dams exist, they are doing useful flood control activities in many cases, something that will become far more important, if storms increase in intensity. 

If the governments were focused on it, a program like what the Department of Energy has in the Loan Program Office would focus on getting these local jobs and clean energy production loans. Those loans could also provide funds to improve these dams. 

Some of these dams are in series on the same river, offering the ability to not only produce electricity, but offer pumped storage. 

The ISOs will be hard pressed to find ancillary services in 20 years, powering these dams would offer more flexibility. 

Let’s not start a program to build more dams, rather let’s start a program to make dams more useful and safer. 

Roger Levy's picture
Roger Levy on Mar 28, 2022

Nice to see you are still rational and willing to state the obvious. 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Mar 28, 2022

Doug,  a great solution. Hydro power is 24/7 so it is very valuable. It can combine with the other renewable of solar, wind and Geo Thermal too. 

 I also would like all the old existing hydro dams get upgraded. In Arizona we have 7 large hydro dams run by the government not for profit SRP.  The dams are over 50 years old and could be upgraded to produce twice as much power. 

Kent Knutson's picture
Kent Knutson on Mar 29, 2022

If I could select an 'emoji' I would post a 'Thumbs Up' . . . thx, for sharing. 

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Mar 29, 2022


First, of all, love your article. Tons of potential for small hydro across the US. 

Quick question for you though - about this statement.

Those 77,600 dams are not all created equal, but the ones that are large enough could provide 60 Gigawatts in Capacity. The same energy as 7,500,000 acres of solar based on the US average capacity factor for solar. 

That didn't pass the  "smell test" for me so I did the calculation below.  Perhaps you can point out the error in my assumptions - if any. 

First of all - 7,500,000 acres is a lot. That almost twice as much as the largest county in Texas - Brewster County = about 4,000,000 acres.

A large solar project can install about 1MW of solar on 5-8 acres. Let's say that we need 7.5 acres to get 1MW.  In your example, that would get us 1,000,000 MW = 1,000 GW of solar capacity. 

That's a lot. In fact, last year the US only had about 50 GW of utility-scale solar capacity. This 50 GW produced about 114 TWh of electricity and CF was 24.6%. Meanwhile the 80 GW of Hydro capacity produced about 260 TWh and CF was 37.1%.

If we added the 7,500,000 acres of solar you mentioned we would be adding 20x the total capacity in 2021. Assuming the same CF , this means we would get 20 x 114 TWh = 2,280 TWh of solar generation... more than 1/2 total US current generation.

Meanwhile, you are proposing adding 60 GW of small hydro which is equal to 75% of current capacity. Again, using the same CF, this means we would get 0.75 x 260 TWh  or 195 TWh of additional hydro generation. 

Recap: 2,280 TWh of additional solar vs 195 TWh of additional hydro

So, effectively the 7,500,000 acres of solar would get us 10x the amount of generation that an additional 60 GW of hydro would get us.

Is there a problem with my assumptions/numbers? If so, can you point it out. Thanks.


Doug Houseman's picture
Thank Doug for the Post!
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