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May 2012 - Volume 20, Number 2


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What about Water Power?

By Deborah D. Thornton


“From earliest times, water has always been acknowledged as a primary human good and an indispensable natural resource. Around the great rivers of the world, like the Mississippi, great cultures have developed, while over the course of the centuries the prosperity of countless societies has been linked to these waterways.”[1] – Pope Benedict XVI, October 2009


As the public policy battles over energy sources and consumption continue, is anyone looking at (or investing in) water energy? Hydropower, one of the oldest clean, renewable energy sources, is not much discussed. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy is about to change that – especially in Iowa, where we have two major rivers for borders.


The prosperity of Iowa is closely linked to the actions of water, especially the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, as Pope Benedict recognized. On the other hand, the rivers and their water have caused significant property and land damage in the last four years. Eastern Iowa is still recovering from the flood of 2008, while western Iowa deals with the flood of 2011. Maybe it is time to capture the human good of this natural resource and use the rivers to make Iowans more prosperous.


By definition, hydroelectric power is the production of power by using the gravitational force of falling or flowing water. Hydroelectric power is the most widely used form of renewable energy in the world.[2] In 2010, hydroelectric power provided over 3,400 terawatt-hours of power worldwide, approximately 16 percent of the total electricity generated.[3] In contrast, in the United States only about seven percent of our electricity is generated by hydropower.[4]


The first modern water-powered electricity plants in the United States were built in the 1880s in Colorado and Utah by Lucien Nunn and George Westinghouse. They were designed and built in response to the high price of coal – which was $40 to $50 a ton at the time. The plants expanded rapidly and soon provided power to mining towns in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah.[5] As part of his business expansion, Nunn trained the necessary workers and provided grant money to Cornell University to begin training electrical engineers. He was doing job training and social good before it was fashionable.


The most famous hydropower plant in the U.S., the Hoover Dam, generates four billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of power each year. Started in 1930 and finished two years early, in 1935, it has been in operation for over 75 years, with several upgrades.[6] In contrast, one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world is at the Itaipu’ Dam in Brazil/Paraguay. Completed in 1991, it took 16 years to build and in 2000 generated over 93,000 gigawatt hours of electricity, a world record.[7]


The first requirement for hydropower production is a dam to control the water flow. There are over 80,000 dams in the United States. Currently, only 2,500 of them produce electricity. The energy potential of the water released from the rest is simply wasted. The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a new report on the electrical power that could be generated from non-powered dams (NPD) in the U.S.[8] According to this report the potential is significant.


The report, “An Assessment of Energy Potential at Non-Powered Dams in the United States,” reviews and analyzes the possibilities, and suggests an expanded direction for economic development, private investment, and renewable energy efforts in Iowa.


Initially, DOE reviewed 54,391 NPDs for their energy potential. The carefully formulated, pro-forma estimate of total potential capacity from these NPDs is estimated to be 12 gigawatts, with annual energy generation of 45 terawatt hours. This is about 15 percent of the current hydropower produced in the U.S.[9]


In the United States it takes about one megawatt to power 400 homes for a year. A gigawatt is equal to 1,000 megawatts. Therefore, a gigawatt would provide electricity for about 400,000 homes per year, and 12 gigawatts would power about 4.8 million homes.[10] Though these are rough estimates, and the Dept. of Energy is careful to say that actual production would be less, increases in hydropower production of electricity could be a significant new addition to the renewable energy industry.


Importantly, because the dams controlling the water are already in place – being operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – much of the environmental impact and analysis, development cost, and time investment has already been incurred. Adding power generation capability to these dams can potentially be done with lower cost, less risk, and in a shorter timeframe than building many other power sources.


The list of 54,391 dams was further narrowed, through a fairly comprehensive process, to a review of the top 100 dam sites. Twelve of these top 100 sites are on rivers in Iowa, primarily the Mississippi.[11] As you come down from the Upper Mississippi, dams number 9 to 18 are all in the top 100 for potential electricity generation. The initial estimate is that hydroelectric power plants on the Mississippi dams have a potential capacity of 590 megawatts, or enough electricity for about 236,000 homes. The following table outlines the 12 dams, some of which are jointly controlled with Illinois.



Hydropower plants on the two dams on the Des Moines River – Red Rock and Saylorville – have a potential capacity of another 90 megawatts, which could produce enough energy to power 36,000 homes. This is about 40 percent of the homes in Des Moines.[12] Again, the Department of Energy is careful to say that many factors would impact the electrical power production capacity on the dam sites, but the potential is there.


Iowa is a leader in feeding the world and in generating wind power because of our wide-open prairies and fields. The Mississippi River, one of the great rivers of the world, is another major natural resource, and has historically been an important economic contributor. Maybe it’s time for us to put the power of the river to work again for a great culture.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, “Letter to Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople,” Eighth International Symposium on Religion, Science and the Environment: “Restoring Balance: The Great Mississippi River,” October 12, 2009, <> accessed on April 21, 2012.
[2] “Top-Alternative Energy Sources,” <> accessed on April 20, 2012.
[3] “Use and Capacity of Global Hydropower Increases,” Worldwatch Institute, <> accessed on April 26, 2012.
[4] “Hydroelectric power water use,” U.S. Geological Survey, <> accessed on April 23, 2012.
[5] “Olmstead Hydroelectric Plant,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Provo, Utah office, <> accessed on April 20, 2012.
[6] “Hoover Dam, Frequently Asked Questions and Answers,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, <> accessed on April 20, 2012.
[7] “Itaipu’ Dam: The world’s largest hydroelectric plant,” U.S. Geological Survey, <> accessed on April 22, 2012.
[8] Boualem Hadjerious, Yaxing Wei, and Shih-Chieh Kao, “An Assessment of Energy Potential at Non-Powered Dams in the United States,” U.S. Department of Energy, April 2012 <> accessed on April 19, 2012.
[9] Hadjerious, p. 22.
[10] Hadjerious, p. vii, footnote 1.
[11] Hadjerious, pp. 31-34.
[12] “Des Moines, Iowa,”, <> accessed on April 22, 2012.


IOWA ECONOMIC SCORECARD is our quarterly economic forecast, arriving in February, May, August,
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