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Damless Hydropower Plants and Their Implications

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

We are starting to see more and more damless hydro power plants all over the world, especially in developing countries as well as in mountainous regions.

Damless hydro power plants are also known as run-of-river. One of the most curious facts about this power stations is that the countries that are the leaders concerning having the most and the largest hydroelectric power projects are the same ones that have been implementing more run-of-river plants. These countries include China, Brazil, and Canada.

However, there are also countries that due to their natural geography (with many mountains) are using this new damless hydro power plants. These include Austria, Switzerland, Norway, and Nepal.

What is a damless hydro power plant or a run-of-river?

Simply put, it’s an emerging source of electricity that has been being well developed and research to make technology more cost-efficient. With different models being constructed, all of them have two things in common: the increase of the efficiency and the decrease of the costs. One of the major benefits of using this new source of electricity is the fact that the environmental damage is minimized.

One of the main barriers that damless hydro power plants have, and one of the reasons why it can’t always be the number one option, is the fact that the river needs to have a minimum flow-rate.

How do Damless hydro power plant or a run-of-river work?

Simply put, you will need to divert a part of the creek, stream, or river that needs to have a lot of elevation change. You divert it into a pipe that you’ll need to run downhill to a powerhouse. This is where you’ll be using the water force as well as gravity to make the turbine spin and generate electricity.

Micro Turbine Installations
Micro turbines can be installed in gradual drops and sudden drops.

One of the main differences between these power plants and the huge hydro electric projects we are used to seeing is the lack of water storage not to mention the scale. While on larger scale hydro projects there is the need to a huge part of land flooded to be able to have the water reservoirs, run-of-river projects are at the mercy of the river flows. So, while they cause fewer environmental impacts, the variability of electricity is a negative factor that needs to be taken into account.

Damless hydro power plants advantages:

1: Fewer Greenhouse effects And A Cleaner Power

Just like the most traditional and large power plant units, damless hydro power plants also take advantage of the water’s energy. However, one of the things that are substantially different between the two is the fact that the run-of-river projects don’t need any water reservoirs. So, this allows the elimination of the carbon monoxide and methane emissions that usually occur on the conventional hydroelectric plants, and that are caused by the decomposition of organic matter in the water reservoir.

2: Less Flooding And No Reservoirs Needed

One of the main issues that have been discussed about traditional hydroelectric plants is the fact that they usually have a negative impact on people who live near or on the river, natural habitats, and even the tendency to destroying all the productive farmlands in the area. However, run-of-river projects don’t require either a water reservoir as well as they don’t also need a substantial flooding of the upper part of the river. So, these means that the adverse effects mentioned don’t occur when there is the implementation of these smaller scale projects.

3: Lower Initial Costs And More Adaptable

The initial costs are always smaller than the ones that we need to deal with the construction of a high hydroelectric dam. Plus, it is also a lot more flexible since it can be implemented in almost any river, stream, or creek, as long as it has the right height. Since run-of-river projects are usually a lot smaller, they don’t need a lot of land near the river itself. In some cases, they don’t even need any land.

Damless hydro power plants disadvantages:

1: Unpredictable Power

One of the biggest problems of run-of-river power us that it has a minimum or no capacity at all for energy storage. So, this way, it just can’t adapt to the demand. The truth is that it will be able to produce a lot more energy when the flow of the river is higher – during raining months -, while they can even stop producing energy is the flow is too low during summer or dryer months. Winter months can also be a concern especially if they are built or installed in areas where rivers get frozen. This will also prevent energy to be produced.

2: Availability Of Sites

The success of the site location includes two important factors – the flow and the head of water. When we look at the traditional hydroelectric plants, they will take the head of the river and create the water reservoir with hundreds of kilometers. However, when we look at run-of-river power plants, they need to take the head of the river and get the water delivered by a tunnel, pipe, or canal built upstream of the power house. Since this factor can hugely increase the costs, it’s better to search for sites where there is a steep drop in the river. And these kinds of sites are a lot harder to find.

To overcome these challenges, there has been significant research in this area. New technologies that lower the environmental impacts have been developed. New kinds of turbines which can operate in lower water drop have been developed. In such a scenario we can say that damless hydro power plants is indeed a good solution for the production of electricity.

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