Rolling on the river: The future of local energy

Today, most of the electricity in the United States is generated in very large facilities—capable of serving millions of homes—far away from the people who will actually use that electricity. We do it this way because it makes financial sense. It's cheaper to produce electricity in bulk and ship it over transmission lines, than it would be to produce a little electricity in a lot of places.

Or, at least, that would be the case if NIMBYism didn't keep getting in the way. Not In My Backyard movements don't just affect the construction of the actual power plant. And they don't just affect fossil fuels. Transmission lines serve both clean and dirty generation and they have to cross hundreds, or even thousands, of miles to reach their destinations. Along the way, they cross lots of people's property, skirt dozens of towns, and maybe even cut through federal lands. All of that means added cost. Today, experts have told me, it's often more expensive to build the transmission lines to feed a power plant than it is to built the power plant itself.

And that opens some opportunities.

Across the United States, there are pockets of sustainable energy resources not quite large enough to support a big power plant, but potentially very useful to us, nonetheless. And the high cost of transmission means that these resources are starting to make more financial sense. Chief among these is small-scale hydropower. At Txchnologist, I wrote a piece about small-scale hydro—how it works and what we stand to gain by thinking about the scale of electricity generation in a different way.

Kansas is not a state that’s known for its water resources. In fact, when European settlers first reached this region, it was a semi-arid, treeless plain of grass. In 1931, when historian Walter Prescott Webb wrote about the settlement of Kansas, and other Great Plains states, he described “the search for water” as a “continuous and persistent” issue.

It’s not terribly surprising then to learn that Kansas has only a trifling supply of hydroelectric power. Throughout the whole state, the annual mean in production is just 1 megawatt—enough to power fewer than 800 homes, or roughly 0.01 percent of the Hoover Dam’s nameplate capacity.

But Kansas has the potential for much more. In fact, the state could be getting almost 300 megawatts of electric capacity from water power – enough electricity for 240,000 homes. The key: That potential is only accessible if you’re willing to think local.

Read the rest of the story at Txchnologist.

Learn more about decentralized electricity generation by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: The Bowersock Dam and power plant in Lawrence is Kansas' only hydroelectric power plant. IMG_3612, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mr_d_logan's photostream


      1.  Not the worst kind of reinterpretation.

        Hell, some farmers could likely go off grid if they have a big enough river on the property.

        1.  Just because a watercourse runs through your property doesn’t mean you have right to use water.

          1. I was talking in the most general sense. Local and national laws in various places around the world may well cause some issues with such a setup.

          2. Assuming one wanted to put a water wheel on their river, say for a old time style flour mill, where would one apply to get permission?

  1. Twice now in the past few days you’ve used stock imagery I was able to identify immediately from my area.  Enjoying the local feel this is giving.

    I’ve been coming around lately to the idea that we need to start moving away from big, monumental projects to fulfill our energy needs and instead go for smaller, more local solutions.  It seems that while the big complex seems to suit extracting energy from fossil fuels and nuclear reactions, renewable environmental sources seem to fit better with smaller power plants.   Plus we get to trade out some of the extensive infrastructure and systems with single or few points of failure for what is hopefully a more robust and redundant decentralized network. 

    I still think there’s room for the big renewable power plant (the huge wind farm, tidal current harvesting, the huge solar array, Hoover dam or what have you), just that it’s nice not having all your eggs in one basket.

    1. That is it exactly. We’re not going to get rid of big power. It makes too much sense. But we have more opportunities now to diversify our power supply with big and little scales and lots of different resources. 

      1.  Bowersock is currently expanding to the north side of the Kaw – they’re putting in 4 more generators and a new powerhouse to supplement the original on the south side of the river.

    2.  I do wonder how much renewable power could be stored inside a decommissioned hot water boiler if it was hooked to solar and/or wind via a electric compressor. Then if the output of the solar and wind dips below personal need, the pressure could be used to drive a generator.

      1. Not enough.  A consumer-grade hot water boiler, when new, is designed to continually “leak” in that it supplies hot water to devices like radiators.  As pressure vessels go, it’s probably no better than a consumer-grade 80 gallon air compressor tank.

        A hot water heater for plumbing purposes (as opposed to steam fitting) would be even lower pressure.

        My guess is that one would only get enough power out of such a system to make a switchover from batteries to a diesel generator during a power failure, and given that generators start up fairly quickly and don’t usually need an intermediary step, I don’t see it as useful.  Now, if one used compressed air to *start* a generator that might be more reliable than using a starter battery and little electric starter motor to start a generator.

        1. Well if the generator is fuled by local bio-diesel, perhaps. but i was looking for some way to jury-rig a “battery” for any energy collected during  hours of little to no use, as well as fully remove the need for hydrocarbons in the generation cycle (heating by way of wood or similar is a different story).

  2. I want solar on my house. I have enough roof space to have enough hidden panels to supply all I need, and enough space if I use panels visible from the street to probably supply the bulk of a neighbor’s house too.

    We need to stop subsidizing fossil fuel and instead subsidize homeowners who want to do this. We also need to mandate solar power generation in new construction.

    1. Congratulations on your zeal for solar power.  But we don’t need to  ‘mandate’ anything: mandates lead to market distortions, which lead to higher lobbying, which leads to corruption, sadness, and the Dark Side.

      Think the other way: remove subsidies from power generation, impose a carbon tax to compensate for the tragedy of the commons in greenhouse gases, and let each power generation method slog it out.

  3. Better yet, what about identifying ways to tie into current grids? Railroad companies have been doing it for years, finding ways to share the same tracks, not building new ones, and towns sprang up along the tracks. Why not find a power source first, THEN build a nice small secluded community?

    It amazes me too that almost any ocean-side community could utilize tidal and wave energy.

    This small power-plant is less than a mile from my home.

    “Arizona Falls generates up to 750 kilowatts of clean, renewable electricity, which can power up to 150 homes. The roof of the new turbine building and the adjacent shade structure will house solar panels to power ceiling fans on the public deck.The electricity generated by the plant and solar panels is fed into SRP’s (Salt River Project’s) grid.

  4. In Ontario we’re getting a lot of NIMBYism from windmills and solar farms being put up. People who have windmills built near them claim all kinds of health effects and that they’re ugly and ruin the view. The reasoning against solar farms is that it’s taking good farmland away from growing crops. Though we don’t seem to have a problem with building subdivisions in them.

    1. This!

      I used to live in Las Vegas during the crazy housing boom, where square miles of tract housing could go up in a quarter and nobody would blink an eye. But recently there’s been plans for a solar farm and people are protesting that it’ll absolutely destroy the desert ecosystem. Never mind the coal plant up in Caliente or the river stopping Hoover Dam, solar panels are going shit on everything we hold dear.

      1. That’s because the building industry owns the government. It’s the same here in Palm Springs.

  5. Maggie, I love your method of advertising. Very much looking forward to your book.

    One aspect of local, small-scale electricity generation that I don’t feel gets a lot of attention is the security/fault-tolerance angle. It seems like distributed generation (especially generation close to usage) combined with a somewhat smarter grid could lead to a huge leap in terms of the adaptability and resiliency of our power generations and distribution system. (I was in NYC during the 03 blackout, so the fragility of the current system looms pretty large in my head.) I’m confident that I’ll get an answer in your book, but is anyone paying attention to this? It seems like the risk embedded in our current system places large costs on society, is anyone taking this into account? (DHS and your 57 billion dollars, I’m looking at you…)

    1.  As it happens, I work at Blenheim Gilboa, the backbone power facility that is designated by the state to stabilize the NYC area and restart it in the event of a blackout. So are we thinking about fragility? Yep. Are we doing anything about it with D-G? Nope.  D-G doesn’t touch the bulk power grid.

      This issue is actually made more complicated by the fact that there is the backbone or bulk power network, and then there is distribution – the last mile so to speak of the power system. Bulk systems regularly become loads or sources – the power goes both ways. On the distribution system, power used to only flow out to the loads – this stopped being true with net-metering laws only about 15 years ago in California, and not in NYC until it was mandated by the state in 2009.

      There’s pretty big resistance in the traditional power field to even looking at generation that’s less than 10 MW, say. We’ve got one – Ashokan – that’s a hydro rated at 2 MW, which produces power off of the flow of the water from the Ashokan reservoir to NYC. It’s underground. Actually, it’s under a fountain in a park, and every time I see it I think “No, Mr. Bond… I expect you to die!”

      We’ve got 4 hydros run from our facility total – B-G itself, 4 units, 1200 MW; Crescent and Vischer Ferry ~12 MW each. The smaller units are on the distribution power system. Because of the requirements of being on the 345kV back bone, B-G itself is probably 4 or 5 times as complex as one of the other hydros… but it produces 100 times as much power. We spend a huge engineering effort on that 2MW Ashokan facility… and we have three 0.5 MW  diesel generators for emergency backup here, to give you and idea of scale. A MW sounds big, it isn’t.  Ashokan has probably never paid for itself in electricity, given the engineering and maintenance it requires. We’ve been running it since 1980.

      Con Ed is your distribution system manager, and they’re pretty incapable of dealing with these bidirectional flows (they were total assholes to deal with on the two tidal turbines on Roosevelt Island that Maggie is talking about here.) Part of this is organizational; one of my professors advised them on better math and programming to adjust to changes in the system. Part of this is actually not their fault – they’ve got a massively parallel system instead of a branch system, and as a result they have a lot of difficult flow management problems that D-G makes worse.

      1.  I’ve also done engineering outside of here on several micro-hydros. The work for a full-time system (including say winter and spring runoff) is way harder than a supplementary system… and that actually points to something of a solution, since wind and solar also have variable production but their maximums tend to be at different times.  But somewhere in there, you still need a battery – either an actual one, or the grid – or you need to be ok with turning some stuff off.

    1.  When I got to the part about Chinese farmers with medical problems and dying livestock I stopped.

      Pollution from production in foreign countries is a problem because those countries choose not to regulate the pollution or processes.  That doesn’t mean there’s zero cost to regulating such, but products made where labor costs are low still means a less expensive product when imported compared to domestically-produced goods, if that’s a goal of an importer.

      I wouldn’t mind seeing higher-tech solar being produced domestically, complete with management of the waste products and everything.  Sometimes waste products from processes can themselves be used for other kinds of products.

      Part of the point, though, in renewable energy sources is that while there’s a cost to produce the devices, that cost is incurred ONCE.  Not like coal, where there’s continual extraction and continual combustion, on top of the environmental costs to build the plant too.

    2. “They didn’t include the radioactive and carcinogenic waste produced by the manufacture of wind turbines, nor the Chinese farmers who’ve seen their land, animals, and families drop like too many flies from the pollution3.”

      Yes, because coal totally burns off the mercury into sub atomic ash and in no way uses the same type of magnetic generation. We should all just kill ourselves for even just aspiring for better.

  6. I looked at the picture for this post briefly, started reading the post, then thought “hey, wasnt there a small hydroelectric damn in my college town?”. I look at the photo a little closer and instantly recognized the city hall building. It’s really awesome how frequently I get these little reminders of home from Maggie’s post.

    1. These small hydro projects are actually much safer for fish than the big dam/reservoir systems. They usually don’t involve blocking the flow of the river and, in many cases, only a small portion of the river is diverted through the power plant. The East River project I talk about in the full post has monitored fish impacts and the fish just swim around those turbines. 

  7. Those hydro projects have altered the landscape and made ecological restoration problematic to put it mildly. In the mean time SMRs (Small Modular Reactors) are waiting in the wings and would likewise decentralize energy and because they’d be a high tech manufacturing operation here in the US they’d give us the kind of energy and manufacturing trade balance that could do a whole lot of good. 

  8. Here is a news story about the axe factory in my hometown, which recently renovated and rebuilt an old hydroelectric power plant on its property to power the production. Cheers!

  9. Agree that diversity of the power grid and local energy are good things, but hydropower and wind power are not problem-free. It’s not just nimbysism, it’s birds and bats that are killed by wind turbines, and it’s siltation and disturbed river habitats from dams. Not that we shouldn’t use turbines and hydropower, just that we shouldn’t be fooling ourselves that these things are entirely green.

  10. problem is, hydro power plants kill rivers, and there isn’t much we could change to avoid it . The power comes from the flow, and we have to disrupt the flow to harvest it.

    1. Au contraire! There some run-of-the-river turbines being developed that require no dam. Saw a piece on PBS about some being tested (submerged) in the East River.
      Mass produced with some sort of protection to keep fish from being chewed up, it might be the ticket.

  11. I would think that there would be an economies-of-scale issue with small-scale power generation, unless you’re selling power to large-scale providers.

  12. Small scale hydro is becoming increasingly common in the UK, especially in Wales. The group that runs canals (British Waterways) is putting installations on weirs and even the Queen has got in on the act, with an Archimedes screw device near Windsor Castle. Typical installations have a pipe to a turf covered turbine building and a fish bypass – very low visual impact. There’s over 1 GW of ecologically non-damaging, commercial capacity identified.

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