Dams that produce hydropower have been one of the longest established renewable energy sources in the US for a long time. The American industrial revolution started in places, like Massachusetts, with abundant free flowing rivers that were tapped for their energy to power early factories.
Hydropower is still the largest source of renewable energy, accounting for a bit under half of the total.
A few years ago, I was involved with a project that was intended to revive one of those early industrial cities, Holyoke, Massachusetts. The city still had one of the few operating dams left and it supplied local electric power at a significant discount compared to elsewhere in the state. So the idea developed of creating local jobs by building a data center in Holyoke as a remote cloud location for major universities and businesses in the Boston area. (Driving distance between the two is about 90 miles.)
Putting aside whether a data center can be a significant job creator like old-time car plants, it struck me that the state as a whole would benefit by using the water resources there, thus bringing down a relatively high cost for electricity in a digital age. Of course, river resources are present in many other states, particularly east of the Mississippi River and in the northwest.
Thus, at one meeting with representatives of the research facilities of Harvard and MIT, I asked a simple question. When was the last time that engineering or science researchers took a serious look at using better materials or designs to improve the efficiency of the turbines that the water flows through or finding replacements for turbines (like the VIVACE hydrokinetic energy converter shown here)?
Despite or maybe because of the Three Gorges Dam project in China and similar projects, hydropower from dams has diminished in popularity in the face of various environmental concerns. Yet the rivers still flow and contain an enormous amount of energy and giant dams don’t have to be the only way to capture that energy.
With that in mind, I also asked if they had looked at the possibility of designing smaller turbines so that smaller rivers could be tapped without traditional dams. Some variations of this idea are called “run of the river”. (Because of the variability of river flows, this version of hydropower doesn’t produce a consistent level of energy like a coal-burning plant. As with other renewables, it too will need more efficient and cost-effective means of storing electricity – batteries, super-capacitors, etc.)
The quizzical stares I received could most diplomatically be translated as “Why would we do that? Hydraulic engineering is centuries old and has been well established”. However, the sciences of materials and fluid dynamics is dramatically better now than it was even seventy or a hundred years ago and it calls for a much stepped up effort in new hydraulic engineering than has taken place. Periodically, the experts publicly say this as in “Hydraulic engineering in the 21st century: Where to?”
As it turned out, a year or two later in 2011/2012, there was a peak of activity in hydropower experiments in the UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, and India. Here are just some of the more interesting examples:
· Halliday Hydropower’s Hydroscrew
· The Hydro Cat, free floating
· Blue Freedom’s “world’s smallest hydropower plant” is intended primarily for small mobile devices as their slogan says “1 hour of Blue Freedom in the river. 10 hours of power for your smartphone”
· In an unusual twist on this topic, Lucid Energy harnessed the power of water flowing through urban pipes.
These were interesting prototypes, experiments and small businesses, but without the kind of academic and financial support seen in the IT industry, these don’t seem to have the necessary scale to make an impact – notwithstanding the release two months ago of a Hydropower vision paper by the US Department of Energy. I’d love to be corrected on this observation.
Perhaps this is another example of a disruptive technology, in the way that its creator, Clayton Christensen, originally defined the term. Disruptive technologies start to be used at the low end of the market where people have few or no other choices – places like India and the backcountry of advanced economies which are poorly served by the electrical grid, if at all. Only later, possibly, will these products be able to go upmarket.
Too much of the discussion about disruptive technologies has been limited to information technology. There can be disruptive technologies in other fields to solve problems that are just as important, perhaps more important, than the ones that app programmers solve – like renewable energy.
Only time will tell if the technology and markets develop sufficiently so that run of the river and similar hydropower becomes one of the successful disruptive technologies.
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