How the DOE Is Looking to Save Hydropower

The Department of Energy (DOE) unveiled a slate of measures to help U.S. hydropower thrive as costs for wind and solar plummet. Measures will include a roadmap to identify hydro’s value in a future grid, and a first-of-its-kind prize designed to encourage innovative and faster pumped storage construction techniques.

In her opening speech at Waterpower Week, the National Hydropower Association’s (NHA’s) annual conference held this week in Washington, Linda Ciocci, president and CEO of the NHA, suggested the industry is struggling to stay relevant amid the rapidly unfolding energy transition, which has seemingly favored wind and solar over other forms of generation. 

“Time and time again, I’ve listened as stakeholders told me of the devaluation of their hydro resources and the financial squeeze that they are experiencing, or that more expectations are made of their plants,” Ciocci said. “The contribution hydro makes in keeping our air clean, our grid secure … is immense. You all know that. But you also know the struggles that this industry faces; you deal with that every day. So, what do we do about this? Well, I believe we should step up our game.” 

In his keynote speech, Daniel Simmons, assistant secretary of the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency, and Renewable Energy (EERE), told attendees that hydropower was integral now and in the future, but efforts to expand current capacity face stiff competition from wind and solar. “You could say 10, 15 years ago that the cost of wind and solar were going to decrease. I, for one, did not project them to decrease as fast as they did,” he said.

Hydro provides three key roles: energy affordability, integration, and energy storage, Simmons said. “When you look at what consistently results in lower electricity prices, at which states have low electricity prices, hydropower is the answer,” he said. But in the grid of the future—which “is going to be much more dynamic”—hydropower’s role “will be key to flexibility,” including for services to support reliability, like ramping, frequency response, and black start. Pumped storage hydro (PSH) and marine energy will also highly complement other forms of renewables, Simmons said. 

That’s why the DOE is pushing hard to ensure hydropower will remain a major part of the power mix. The following are some measures Simmons pointed to on Monday. 

A Research Initiative to Boost Hydro’s Future Value

The HydroWIRES (Water Innovation for a Resilient Electricity System), which Simmons unveiled on April 1, will be focused on understanding and enabling hydropower’s full potential. The portfolio, overseen by the Water Power Technology Office, will be organized into four research areas. The first two areas establish a baseline understanding of what range of services may be most valuable for the future grid (by studying different ways it may evolve), as well as identifying  hydropower constraints and capabilities. “Defining the interrelated structure of those two research spaces provides needed insights into which services and attributes that the hydropower fleet can and should be prioritizing,” the DOE says. The third research area defines how findings can be practically applied within the context of more information about the future grid. The final area will integrate findings from all three spaces to “inform” technology development and innovation that could expand hydropower and PSH technologies, and their ability to provide valuable services to the grid. 

“What this is, is taking a portfolio approach to understand and develop the whole potential of hydropower, including PSH, to contribute to the electricity system, reliability, and resilience,” Simmons said. “We are going to be developing a roadmap to support these goals and address these industry challenges.” 

A Competition to Spur New Pumped Hydro 

Simmons introduced the Furthering Advancements to Shorten Time (FAST) Commissioning for PSH Prize, noting the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce regulatory burdens. While the hydropower sector has “serious regulatory challenges,” it also needs to build new PSH now, because it will be critical for the future, he said. But PSH requires large capital investments and long lead times for commissioning—factors that can be deterrents to would-be developers and utilities, he said.

In the FAST competition, up to three winners could collect up to $550,000 in combined cash prizes and voucher support between November 2019 and September 2020. The prize, Simmons said would stimulate new solutions—including new designs and strategies to accelerate PSH development by reducing the time, cost, and risk to commission PSH. He said the prize seeks solutions to “reduce the time it takes to commission PSH from its current 10 years to less than five years,” and he noted the submission window is open until May 24. The DOE added, in related press materials, “Ideas could include innovative PSH ideas, new layouts, creative construction management, improved construction equipment, application of advanced manufacturing, or standardization of equipment.” 

Funding to Stimulate Ideas for Hydro, Hydrokinetic, and Marine Energy

Simmons also announced the “Water Power Technologies Office 2019 Research Funding Opportunity,” a $26.1 million funding opportunity to drive industry-led technology solutions in the marine and hydrokinetics space, as well as to increase hydro’s ability to serve as a flexible grid resource. Both would focus on “increasing affordability of hydropower and marine energy as well as strengthen U.S. manufacturing competitiveness,” said Simmons. The funding will support projects in four areas of interest: 

  • Hydropower operational flexibility. “We need to get [industry’s] ideas to understand how we can help make hydropower even more valuable,” Simmons said.
  • Low-head hydropower and in-stream hydrokinetic technologies. The nation’s rivers provide “enormous potential for electricity generation and to capture that energy, this area seeks to invest in standard modular hydropower and kinetic energy,” he said. “So, looking for opportunities around modularity, looking to be able to build with a lower cost, with more environmental benefits … and cheaply and easily manufacture these devices.” 
  • Advancing wave energy device design. This initiative is a follow up to the $40 million award given by the DOE to Oregon State University in 2016 to build PacWave, an open-water, grid-connected, full-scale test facility for wave energy conversion technologies. Initial operation of the facility is slated to begin between 2021 and 2022 (based on material procurement timelines). The facility, the first of its kind in the U.S., is expected to accommodate up to 20 wave energy converters in four test berths. “What we are seeking to do with this topic is to support the design assistance that can be tested in place, in an open-water facility, such as PacWave, in an area that is highly energetic, where wave energy has the most energy at the lowest cost,” said Simmons. 
  • Marine energy centers research infrastructure upgrades. Simmons noted that several marine research centers across the country could benefit from improved infrastructure to accommodate more testing. 

Funding to Establish a Testing Program for Marine Energy

Just a week ago, on March 22, the DOE announced $10 million in funding to establish the U.S. Testing Expertise in Access or Marine Energy Research (TEAMER). The new program seeks to give marine energy developers access to a wide range of pre-certified facilities at minimal cost to help test and validate their designs. It will also pair technology companies with marine energy experts, and establish consistent testing protocols as a condition for access to facilities. “Unsurprisingly, the federal government is a bit bureaucratic,” said Simmons. “How could we reduce some of that bureaucracy so that people can have access to the world-class testing resources at national labs or other marine testing centers? So, this is an idea we hope gets a lot of traction to be able to advance testing and to boot devices into the real world,” he said. 

DOE Envisions a ‘Blue Economy’ 

On Monday, Simmons also introduced a new report, “Powering the Blue Economy: Exploring Opportunities for Marine Renewable Energy in Maritime Markets.” The report explores opportunities that could be supported by marine and hydrokinetic technologies.

The term “blue economy” is gaining traction among government, industry, and nonprofits as an organizing principle that captures the interplay between economic, social, and ecological sustainability of the ocean, the report notes. “This interest is fueling investment in next-generation maritime or ‘blue’ technologies,” it says. 

A Prize to Ensure a Future Powered by Wave Desalination

Desalination will be more critical in the future, but it’s expensive. “Reverse osmosis only gets us so far, and it has high energy costs,” Simmons noted. “What if we can do it with smaller devices, powered by wave energy to produce clean water?”

The DOE has so far tackled that question by announcing the $2.5 million Waves to Water Prize. Simmons said it will draw upon U.S. innovators to accelerate technology development through a series of contests to demonstrate small, modular, cost-competitive desalination systems that use the power of the ocean to provide potable drinking water to remote coastal and island communities. 

The prize seeks to provide innovators a pathway from initial concept, to technical design, to prototype, to field tested systems that use only waves as a power source. “I really hope that this prize can really move the ball in terms of smaller scale desalination,” Simmons said. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)