Case for Hydroelectric Power … Research Paper
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Hydroelectricity has proven to be an important source of energy, and can be a pathway for our energy future. In many countries around the world, major hydroelectricity projects have proven to deliver key jobs during construction, and a sustainable supply of energy thereafter. There are many examples, but when looking at a means of providing energy in a post-carbon world, hydro is one of the most important components.
How Hydroelectricity Works
The basic structure of electricity generation is the turbine. In steam power, coal was used to boil water, and it was the steam that turned the turbine. With hydroelectric dams, the flow of water turns the turbine, meaning that there is far less fossil fuel usage involved. This makes hydroelectricity a clean source of energy, relative to hydrocarbons. The development of alternating current in the late 19th century allowed for electricity generated through hydroelectric dams to be transmitted longer distances, and today's technology can allow for hydro power generated to be used hundreds of miles away, which allows for the creation of massive dam projects in remote areas, used to power cities and settlements far away (United States Department of Energy, n.d.).
There are many examples of large-scale hydroelectric projects, and the long-term energy that they can provide. The Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The construction provided jobs that were critical at the time, but just as important the Hoover Dam provides energy to this day for a large region in the Southwest. Many more recent dam projects have been built to provide power to their respective countries. The Three Gorges Dam in China is one of the world's most famous hydroelectric dam projects. In 2012, Three Gorges replaced the Itaipu Dam along the Brazil/Paraguay border as the world's largest hydroelectric dam project. The largest in the United States is the Grand Coulee Dam along the Columbia River in Washington (U.S. Geological Survey, n.d.).
Dams are massive infrastructure projects, and are not used by all countries. Typically, what is needed is a river with a large, reliable flow, and usually this will also be in a remote area. The reason for this is that a dam will flood a massive area behind it, and therefore cannot be built near existing communities. Indeed, several towns along the Yangtze were evacuated with the creation of the Three Gorges Dam. That dam is still considered to be an environmental disaster, despite displacing some of China's coal consumption (Richmond, 2014). Thirteen of the world's largest 20 hydroelectric dams are in either China or Russia. Canada, the United States and Venezuela are other major hydro producers.
Small Scale Production
The logistical issues relating to massive dam projects have made it difficult for most countries to utilize hydroelectric power. In the U.S., there are few rivers remaining that can be dammed on a large scale. Only countries like Canada and Russia appear to have significant dam potential at this point, along with the ability to utilize it. There are, however, opportunities for smaller-scale dam projects to become important contributors of hydroelectric power. Countries like Norway and Sweden are good examples -- they have no massive dams yet are among the world leaders in hydroelectricity production.
Kosnick (2010) argues that there are thousands of viable sites for small-scale hydroelectricity generation in the United States. The necessary topographical features were identified and matched with rivers, and it appears that there is a future for small scale hydroelectricity generation in the U.S. as a potential solution to the burning of fossil fuels. This study showed that the costs are relatively high for the amount of electricity that can be generated, but that there are still hundreds of sites with the right balance between the cost of building the dam and the amount of electricity that can be generated.
What is needed is a two-mile stream segment. This is because a dam will back up the water, and a catchment area of around two miles is required for the lake that will form behind the dam. Such a lake will flood the area, which represents an environmental trade-off -- if that land is more valuable for other uses then it should not be used for a dam. The flooding of lands is one of the reasons why there are so few opportunities for large-scale hydroelectric projects in the United States remaining. . But with hundreds of opportunities for small-scale projects, hydroelectricity remains a viable way forward towards a post-carbon future.
There is also potential, according to some, for nano-scale hydroelectric power to be utilized. This would be the modern-day equivalent of the water wheel -- a source of power that is built on a scale of a home or small number of homes, using flowing water. For those Americans with direct access to running water, there is some potential for generation of enough electricity to power their homes, a solution that can work in rural and semi-rural areas at the least. The technology for leveraging this capability is still in refinement, which will reduce costs and increase efficiency as more effort is put into this idea in the future (Root, 2012).
There is significant potential still in hydroelectric power for the United States, if smaller rivers are dammed in small scale production projects. The generating potential for such projects is substantial, but there are barriers that would need to be overcome. For example, differing topographies and environmental issues can challenge the viability and cost structure of projects -- they can be vastly different even on projects of similar size. At present, there is a cost-benefit analysis that tends to be unfavorable to smaller projects. But the reality is that as the price of fossil fuels increases, which it will naturally due to scarcity and artificially as the cost of burning fossil fuels is increasingly priced in due to carbon taxes, more small projects will become financially viable. Studies have shown that cost estimates can be difficult to obtain, but better understanding of the cost-benefit implications of such projects will allow for the generating potential of small-scale hydroelectric to be better utilized (Aggidis et al.,2010).
Much of America's existing hydroelectric infrastructure dates back several decades, and many such projects are associated with job creation schemes. Dams provide hundreds or thousands of jobs in their construction, and there are several good jobs remaining pertaining to the operation of a hydroelectric dam. The Hoover Dam is a good example of the job creation power of dams, in addition to the power generation aspect. Smaller dam projects would individually create fewer jobs than a large dam, but they have several advantages. First, the jobs created by small scale hydro projects would be dispersed more evenly. Most states would be able to create jobs with such projects. Further, the jobs would be longer-lasting, as the rollout of hundreds of new dams would take place over the course of decades. Public financing for such infrastructure development will be easier to obtain than for a massive project as well. All told, there is the potential to add tens of thousands of new jobs to the economy by encouraging smaller scale hydroelectric dams, and that is in addition to the contribution that such projects would make to reducing the country's carbon footprint. Given that energy needs are growing, these new jobs would not necessarily even come at the expense of the jobs that currently exist for coal mining and other hydrocarbon exploitation -- America needs all energy sources to be viable and new hydro projects would not change that.
Indeed, America has a motivation to help grow its economy. Infrastructure such as transportation and energy infrastructure is essential to that growth. Right now, the country is enjoying a boom in fossil fuel production from fracking, and that is creating a cheaper, more stable supply of energy. Hydroelectric dams can build on this, providing long-term stable energy to people, in a manner that is sustainable, not causing climate change and that will ultimately last for a very long time.
This reliable supply of energy is therefore going to contribute to sustained economic growth. Countries like China are investing in hydroelectric because they recognize the role that energy policy plays in economic policy. The more stable a country's energy supply is, the better situated that country will be for economic growth. Without energy, growth will be difficult, so it is important to develop sustainable sources. This reduces the need for America to import energy from other countries, and gives it a source of competitive advantage over countries that do have to import energy.
An examination of the past shows that hydroelectric dams were often built as a means of creating jobs, but that they play other roles as well. That is not to understate the job creation aspect, and with smaller projects that are widely dispersed around the country those job benefits can be enjoyed by most states and regions. There are many ongoing jobs with… [END OF PREVIEW]
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