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Hydroelectric Power: Bigger Isn't Always Better

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

There’s no question about the importance of hydroelectric power. The truth is that in 2015, hydropower was able to generate almost 17% of the world’s total electricity and near 70% of all renewable energy. As if this data wasn’t enough, the predictions say that we should expect an increase of about 3% each year, over the next 25 years.

The reality is that even though there are some disadvantages related to hydro-electric power, the benefits are completely worth it. The hydroelectricity cost is relatively low, which makes it one of the most competitive renewable energy sources. Plus, unlike gas plants or coal, hydro stations don’t consume any water. And when there is the need to have a dam and a reservoir, we can easily adjust the amount of energy produced by the station which makes it extremely flexible.

One of the things that have been widely discussed is the impact that large hydropower dams have in the environment as well as on the lives of the people who live in the surroundings. The truth is that when there is a project to build a large dam, this will eventually imply a lot of nature destruction from deforestation to interference in the fauna and flora, as well as many people may need to be delocalized. And all these factors have been contributing to the negative press and massive opposition to the construction of larger dams.

However, one of the things that most people tend to forget is that for a dam to be able to produce hydroelectric power, it doesn’t need to be big. After all, bigger isn’t always better. The reality is that we can find enormous hydropower potential in smaller rivers all around the world. And these sites can be an excellent solution since their risks are incredibly lower beside the fact that they don’t require a huge government funding.

So, we keep hearing experts talking more and more about small hydros and micro hydros.

A small hydro usually serves an industrial plant or a small community. Even though each country seems to have their limits to the generation capacity, we can define up to 10 megawatts as the upper limit of what can be called a small hydro. Looking at the different examples that already exist in the world, it’s easy to say that the small-scale hydroelectricity production has been increasing in the last years in countries like China, Japan, Chile, United States, and India.

When building a small hydro, there are two options. They can be connected to the conventional electrical distribution network, or they can be constructed in most remote areas or in places where there isn’t a national electrical distribution network.

In the case of micro hydro power systems, these usually have a maximum capacity of producing up to 100 kW of power. Micro hydros tend to be used to provide power to small communities or isolated homes, or they can also be connected to electric power networks. They tend to be mostly found in developing countries, and they can be used to complement the photovoltaic solar energy systems.

So, what are the main benefits of having small or micro hydros instead of big hydro dams?

Small and micro hydro power plants capture the flowing water energy and transform it into usable energy. Even though the small and micro hydroelectric systems are highly dependent on the water flow, the truth is that they can provide a reliable, clean, and affordable electricity. When built the right way, most people won’t even notice that it’s there as well as it will have fewer negative environmental impacts.

1: Flood control

River valleys tend to be very appreciated, and this is one of the reasons why they tend to have residential areas. However, the quality of life may be affected by common floods. So, installing a power plant can be a great solution to prevent this huge damages.

2: Environmental Balance

Without the need to build a dam, there are fewer environmental damages. However, there isn’t the necessity of deforestation as well as the river water used will be returned unchanged.

3: Little Intervention In Nature

Small scale dams are a huge advantage for people, and they can be environmentally-friendly. The truth is that the habits of humans, plants, and animals are secured.

4: Predictable Energy

One of the main advantages of both small and micro hydros is the fact that it is very easy to predict the amount of energy they will be able to produce within one year. Since it is unlikely to have any breakdowns, there isn’t even the need to bring additional energy.

5: Durable

One significant advantage that smaller hydro dams have is the fact that they tend to last a lot longer than huge dams. The truth is that they don’t need such a high-maintenance.

The fact is that all our civilization has ever grown around moving water. It’s just a matter of looking at the villages and different industries. Some of the most common examples include cities that are built on natural rivers, companies that use industrial water loops, communities close to the water’s edge, and even man-made irrigation channels.

Summing all up, we can easily conclude that the size isn’t that important. The most important thing is to evaluate on a case to case basis. While in some places, there might be the need to build a large hydro power facility, in most cases there isn’t. With so many great examples from both, we need to adopt the perspective and consciousness that everything we built has an impact on nature. It can be in a large or smaller degree. However, we depend on the environment and nature in general to survive. So, making sure that we minimize the effects on both the environment and people just to build a big dam need to be well-thought and considered.

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