Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers found that 54,000 dams not currently used to generate power have the capacity to generate more than 12 gigawatts, enough to power more than 4 million homes. The 100 dams with the highest energy potential could generate 8 gigawatts of power. The top 10 power-generating dams are along the Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, Tombigbee, Arkansas and Red rivers. Equipping existing dams with power-generating plants avoids additional environmental impacts because the dams are already operating. Additionally, installing hydropower won't change the timing of flows released from the dams.
DOE EERE - An Assessment of Energy
Potential at Non-Powered Dams in the United States (44 pages)
Hydroelectricity is one of the lowest cost energy sources and these should be even lower cost because the dam has already been built. It is just the generating equipment and the grid connection that is needed.
"Most non-powered dams and potential capacity can be developed outside of critical habitat, parks and wilderness areas," said Brennan Smith, ORNL water power program manager. "Most of today's large dams that aren't generating power are used for navigation and flood control, but they have the potential to act as a renewable energy source.
Now that researchers have quantified the potential energy of non-power generating dams, the next step will be to figure out how much it will cost to build these hydropower plants.
"The high-value opportunities for development are likely to be at large dams operated by the federal agencies," Smith said. "The private sector can work with these agencies to develop projects that provide additional energy for the nation's electric power systems."
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