Hydroelectric Energy and Small Scale Potential for Citizens and Communities of the United States

A lot of people, even those who extol renewable energy, hate dams. And such disdain is perfectly valid, whatever the benefits of this technological proclivity that humans share with beavers. Dams disrupt stream ecology; they eventually cause such sedimentation that the river bed rises and reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of the dam; they displace communities and cause permanent loss of all sorts of resources, especially land; they often privatize public property and, paradoxically, limit access to waterways and water.

On the other hand, flood management, large scale hydroelectricity, regulation and purification of water supply, and irrigation are undeniable plusses to our kind's tendency to impound water. To an extent, as well, complaints about damming rivers is 'crying over spilt milk' since a wholesale demolition of all of humankind's dams would present a new set of ecological, economic, and social problems: the earth has now adapted to these features, after all.

Thankfully, this essay does not need to delve into this thorny and contentious area of conflict. Instead, it takes a very modest stab at presenting some parameters of a critical area of renewable energy that is not right now on prominent display among policy wonks, techno-geeks, or in any standard mediated form. This relative lack of popularity is not an opinion. Googling "micro hydro" OR "small scale hydro" + news yielded 69,200 hits; "wind energy" OR "wind power" + news 5,670,000 links; and "solar energy" OR "solar power" + news 12,400,000 connections.

Yet, as one of the many funky and fascinating developers in this field expressed the point on its website, appropriate

"Micro Hydropower ... design(s) are the most efficient and ecologically balanced renewable energy systems available today. They are typically 4-5 x better cost to energy output and corresponding reduction in total emissions including manufacturing and installation than other renewable technologies. ...Small and Micro Hydropower represent a significant potential contribution to the resources that can be used to generate renewable energy with minimal impact."

What's up with that?

This correspondent does not have a clue as to a satisfying answer to that query, let alone a complete and probative response. This article merely wants to point out a few matters, highlight some important actors and organizations and outlets, note a few technical items, and make a couple of historical observations about this truly fascinating human endeavor, one which, in conjunction with community and citizen empowerment, has actual potential to optimize the 'human' aspects of humankind's existence in coming years.


A couple of things are apt here. The first is one that I will continue to harp on, because it underlies the manifestation of the social transformation that we all agree is coming whether or not we wish it. People everywhere, everywhere in the Americas and everywhere around the world, are desperate for work and personal engagement. Communities teeter on the verge, occasionally, of utter collapse, and frequently, of slow spirals of decline.

Yet, instead of instituting policies that garner their natural skills and abilities, processes of capacitation that are critical to our species' survival, as a society, we promulgate more top-down technical fixes--whether they are nuclear or carbon based matters little--that consistently make matters worse. Rather than insisting that community participation and a broad view of democratic engagement are the only way we can manage the crises before us, we accede to politics-as-usual, which is to say that whatever benefits the corporate sector is the benchmark of what is acceptable. As Denis Ledbetter agreed,

"It is blindingly apparent that our elected officials aren't directing anything. Oil companies and nuclear energy companies are in charge of policy, if you can call it that. It's really more like a combination of lip service, profiteering, and theft."

The second thing intersects with the first and is another point that I have made repeatedly. Policy is the key to success in energy development, especially in periods of the kind of volatility and dynamism that people everywhere face today. Paradoxically, the U.S., which despite its reputation as the land of 'Horatio Alger' and free markets has historically led the world in giving governmental backing to key industrial sectors, now only really supports one or two pathways--nukes and coal, neither of which are likely to elicit a future that is either democratic or friendly.

As the Dorado Vista Ranch's hydro project puts it, "Small and Micro Hydro definitely need better representation when it comes to the whole support and regulation process. ...Other (energy sources) require much higher subsidies and regulation-burden-reduction to come even close to the value of Small and Micro Hydropower system(s)."

Denis Ledbetter, of Low Power Systems, practically spit with disgust when, in a recent interview, he spoke of enthusiastic customers who, after interminable delays about regulatory impediments, "just gave up in frustration." Ian Woofenden, a senior editor at Home Power Magazine and a highly sought-after renewable energy consultant, in a rushed chat recently also found government and utility intervention obstructive of small hydro. Asked why, he cited "fear and ignorance and control issues."

Part of what future posts in this area will develop is what the central problems are in manifesting a proactive and environmentally sound set of policies in regard to this already demonstrated and hugely powerful technology. And, in spite of a bleak environment at almost every turn in the institutional tangle, at least one reason for optimism exists. The State of Oregon, in its website anyway, presents supportive, clear, and richly detailed guidelines for citizens and communities that want to employ this longstanding companion of civilized existence.


The melange of 'players' in the small and micro hydro sphere necessitates extensive additional reporting; as a group, they seem like a rich stew that somehow combines both exotic and quotidian types. I've already mentioned Ian Woofenden and his excellent publication; he's a no nonsense sort who just wants everyone to pay attention and get the details right so that we can move forward efficiently.

Another down-to-earth entrepreneur in the field is Denis Ledbetter, who has dovetailed his many years of engineering experience in small scale hydro projects with the technical wizardry of Harris Hydro. But Mr. Ledbetter is the opposite of a booster, living primarily, and many of whose customers also live, "off the grid." He mentions the "tragedy" of an education system, especially at the high school level, which churns through semesters without imparting a single useful skill to millions of students. When I mention my experience of schools' removal of shop and drafting and technical courses, he ruefully agrees that this has been the pattern for some time. He doesn't volunteer such criticisms of our society, but he harbors them and reveals them when asked.

The Dorado Vista Ranch, cited above, evinces a Christian face on the web but proffers highly readable, articulate, and knowledgeable materials about almost all areas of small and micro hydro. It also is a prime mover in a micro hydro listserv that shows every sign of being a dandy source of data and contacts. Scores and scores of other characters and companies and groups will undoubtedly show up in sequels to this initial contextualization. One other, however, is too weird to wait on. In "Water; The Original Green Energy," Mike Breslin provides a marvelous technical and historical overview of hydropower potential for small scale users, and he does this for American Recycler, which on occasion enters the alternate energy sphere and offers really useful materials.


This will never be this correspondent's forte. On the other hand, I'm astute with numbers and a quick study generally, so I have a pretty well developed capacity to weed out the horse manure. The main elements of the technology, as Denis Ledbetter states emphatically, are accessible to anybody who can do basic math and read enough to understand basic instructions. "It's not rocket science," he says about the concepts of head--or the difference between the height above sea level of the turbine and the height above sea level of the water as it enters one's pipeline, flow of water--measured in cubic meters or gallons per second, transmission, storage, and conversion of DC to AC current that make up most of this work.

The primary caveat in any attempt to use water is what all correspondents agree is an extreme degree of "site specificity." On the other hand, both Ledbetter and Woofended acknowledge that, as more efficient transmission techniques, state-of-the-art energy-storage, and a smarter and smarter electricity network emerge, then a wider applicability of small hydro is likely.

Environmental impacts, wildlife harm and the potential deleterious diminution of stream flow, are fairly well understood and clearly manageable if we can come up with a policy environment that is supportive and objective. As Ian Woofenden expressed the point, today's policy approach is often "basically just denying permission."

Mike Breslin's article, cited above, provides excellent general technical guidance. The Dorado Vista Ranch makes two free downloads available from the European Small Hydro Association (http://www.esha.be/)that, all too typically, demonstrates the backwardness of most home grown community resources. One exception to this is the absolutely awesome "Virtual Hydropower Prospector" website at the Idaho National Energy Labs, which conjoins excellent science with cutting edge local mapping of likely small scale hydro sites.


Hydroelectricity is merely the newest manifestation of a century's long--or even lengthier--human utilization of the energy in moving water. The micro-hydro listserv makes a thumbnail capsulization of these annals available in a newsletter installment, Volume 9-#4, entitled "Hydro History: From Waterwheels to Turbines," making the important point that highly efficient machine operation is possible from the current of water alone, without the scientific current of electrical energy.

We may never need such knowledge again, but losing such insights is more than a waste. It's stupid. And when an unknown future is coming at us like a freight train, this kind of stupidity is inexcusable. As Denis Ledbetter cogently put the matter, "The education system has to be rejuvenated" to include such teachings, and the technical capacities that naturally flow from them.

I have more than once encountered stories about the pre-electricity-grid era, when folks often showed precocious capacity to use this ancient source of power in a thoroughly modern way. For instance, in my perambulations recently at the wild border between North Carolina and Tennessee, I learned of one inveterate inventor, a certain Mr. Haney, who almost a decade prior to TVA's electrification of the Appalachians and adjacent regions of the South, "lit up his whole hollow," consisting of half a dozen households and several "tourist cabins," using a wooden paddle wheel that he installed in a tributary to Big Laurel Creek.

The issue, again, is not one of technical difficulty. Nor is it one of human ability. Nor is it a question of unsustainable patterns or vicious depredations on the natural environment. As always, the issue is one of networking and community capacity, which do not depend on scientific technique or economic management, but instead require a commitment to cooperation and democracy.

In bringing this present piece of work to an end, a couple of additional notes are worth mentioning. Though this item is shorter than most of my others, it represents more of a first installment in a longer series. I'm one of those people who has navigated life's shoals intuitively. I'm not like Dr. Makhijani, whose brilliance I've had the good fortune to encounter in these pages. I don't always let numbers lead, though I pay attention to the empirical.

And I have a powerful intuition that the burgeoning mix of science and technique, social dynamism, and commercial opportunity in small and micro hydro applications may end up representing the critical core of the technical face of changes that are coming. I've been wrong before about such intuitions. But I've been right a lot more often.

Photo Credits:
ES&D Stream Engine: Back Woods Solar
Hydro schematic: The Solar Biz
Waterfalls: personal collection
Greenville TN Hydro station: personal collection