Energy Systems & Design

Hydro power myths Explains why various schemes such as a pool pumps or rain gutters or pumping water to a tank will not work


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Making electricity from falling water can seem like magic, and that’s led to lots of misconceptions. Here, we’ll separate fact from fiction when it comes to what microhydro systems can and cannot do.

Residential-scale microhydro-electric systems have the reputation of being the holy grail of home renewableenergy (RE) systems. While they lack some of the hype, magic, and bling of solar-electric (photovoltaic) systems, microhydro systems are a simple technology that most people can understand…at least in general. In this article, we’ll look at some common microhydro system misconceptions, most of which come from folks looking for shortcuts to the reward of cheap electricity.

Modern microhydro equipment comes from proven technology based on designs that have changed very little over the decades. Pelton and turgo wheels, the typical spinning waterwheel component, were invented in 1870 and 1919, respectively. The point is, this technology has proven its reliability and functionality with more than a century of performance.

The cost of these systems, and thus the cost of the resulting electricity, also has the reputation for being very reasonable when compared to other renewable or home-generated sources. While PV module prices have recently dropped, they are still a high-tech and expensive commodity. Microhydro systems can arguably be considered low-tech, with civil works and pipelines often being the majority of the system cost. Of course, the actual cost varies significantly from site to site, and from system to system.

Another element that keeps microhydro-generated electricity low in cost, and thus high in desirability, is the system’s continuous duty cycle. While PV systems only produce electricity when the sun is shining (and windelectric systems when the wind is blowing), microhydro systems aren’t affected by nightfall or weather blocking the sun. Even a small hydro resource can provide electricity 24 hours a day, and often 365 days a year (if the water source is year-round). The bottom line for any renewable energy system is the amount of energy it can produce annually. A low power source working all of the time can often produce a lot more energy than a more powerful source that only works intermittently.

So, why doesn’t everyone have a microhydro system? Herein lies the challenge. A viable hydro resource is dependent on the availability of falling water at, or near, the site of the electrical loads. It is the weight or pressure of that flowing water that spins the turbine to produce electrical energy. Not everyone has access to a stream or spring of adequate volume on their property, nor does everyone have the topography to create the vertical drop needed to pressurize that water with gravity. See the “Microhydro Rules” sidebar for a formula about how water flow and vertical pressure (head) combine to determine the power available from a potential hydro site. That site-assessment formula will help debunk some of the myths that follow.

Many microhydro misconceptions are a combination of misunderstanding some of the basic properties of physics, and an overzealous optimism about the potential of RE resources. Here, we hope to correct the misconceptions about physics, while at the same time further encouraging educated optimism. Once you’ve had a little reality check here, we suggest you read some of Home Power’s other articles on the basics of hydro site assessment and microhydro systems (see Access at the end of this article). Perhaps you really do have untapped hydro potential waiting for you.

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