We in America love our dams. They are symbols of American ingenuity. The water churning through the energy-producing turbines of the massive Hoover Dam is a symbol of what the country can accomplish when it puts its mind to a task. There are some 80,000 dams in the United States, and each provides hydropower to a nearby community.
Or so you’d think.
As a matter of fact, very few dams are used to harness the energy-saving potential of water. Not even three percent of the nation’s dams produce power. Why? Dams, as we currently imagine them, are actually quite bulky, inefficient power-saving structures. So why are we talking about the potential of American hydropower if dams are an outdated clean energy source?
I’m glad I asked.
“Reviving hydropower does not mean recreating the hulking masses of concrete that defined mid-20th-century power development,” Brett Walton of Circle of Blue writes. “The prime spots are already plugged, and big new dams no longer fit the time . . . The alternative model is to make better use of infrastructure already in the ground.”
The 21st-Century Dam
Let’s find out what that alternative model looks like. If we lack imagination, it could be costly. As Walton writes, many 20th century dams are problematic: they clog our waterways, disrupting delicate ecosystems and sterilize our watersheds. But if we make minor repairs and additions to existing infrastructure, we could easily utilize the power of our nation’s rivers.
For example, adding a power turbine to an existing dam, although not perfectly ecologically sound, is much less destructive to the environment than erecting an entirely new dam. Structures called “pump storage” dams, which use excess energy to pump water from a low-elevation reservoir to a high-elevation one, are already clean energy success stories in European countries. And tearing down old, non-energy supplying dams could revitalize neglected ecosystems and chart a course for the new century’s dam decision-making process.
We haven’t figured out hydropower. But if we take a good hard look at the problem and choose our dam sites wisely, there’s no reason dams shouldn’t be a part of this century’s clean energy revolution.