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.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.