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US Hydropower: Upgrade old dams for a 12,000 MW boost

Old Dams

US Hydropower: Upgrade old dams for a 12,000 MW boost

Opting to walk down the path of hydropower involves more than finding ideal locations to build new dams. From time to time, never-before-seen innovative technology surfaces that increase the efficiency and rate of power generation.

The arrival of newer and more capable technology leaves older designs as obsolete and inefficient. Sometimes, it is just as important to look back as it is to look forward.

Old Dams

The potential for increasing hydropower capacity in the United States may lie in the modernization of existing dams. Upgrading these old structures can breathe new life into them, transforming them into a veritable powerhouse of energy generation capacity.

The United States is home to numerous aging dams, many of which are in dire need of an overhaul. However, revitalizing these dams can bring about significant benefits, not only in terms of increased hydropower capacity but also in improving the country’s energy security. The modernization of existing dams can be likened to the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, emerging as a new and more powerful entity.

The upgrading of old dams can lead to a significant surge in hydropower capacity, providing a renewable energy source that can help reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. By modernizing these structures, they can harness the power of water more efficiently and effectively, resulting in a boost in energy generation capacity that can rival other forms of renewable energy.

Moreover, modernizing existing dams can contribute to the country’s energy security, as it reduces reliance on foreign oil and other non-renewable sources of energy. This shift towards renewable energy can be likened to the planting of seeds, which can grow and bloom into a bountiful harvest of energy independence and sustainability.

In conclusion, upgrading old dams can pave the way for a brighter and more sustainable future for the United States. By transforming these aging structures into powerful generators of hydropower, the country can reduce its carbon footprint, promote energy security, and establish a more resilient energy system for the generations to come.

What is the hydropower capacity of a dam?

Dams are solid structures built to impound water for various purposes, including hydroelectric power generation. (i.e., a reservoir) Hydropower is a renewable energy source that comes from the movement of water, normally generated when the kinetic energy in water turns a turbine. The capacity of a dam can be measured in terms of Megawatts (MW).

It is estimated that the USA has over 91,000 dams with a total hydropower capacity of over 80,027. This number only includes currently operational dams and not dams that are planned/ currently under construction.

However, out of the 91,000 operational dams, only a few of them produce hydropower. The largest dam in the United States is the Oroville Dam, with an installed capacity of 819MW. This dam has been built in the city of Oroville in California.

Upgrading old dams increase hydroelectric power output

Dams are a big part of the United States’ hydroelectric power generation infrastructure, but many of them are more than 50 years old. Upgrading these dams could go a long way in increasing hydroelectric power output and helping the country meet its environmental goals.

Hiwassee Dam in North Carolina – a good example

One example is the Hiwassee Dam in North Carolina. The construction of this dam was initiated in the mid-1930s and ended in 1940. It has been operating at full capacity since it was built, which amounts to about 185 MW. The only time power production was halted was when an electrical breakdown occurred in 2011.

By upgrading this dam and fitting it with modern hydrokinetic turbines, the hydropower output can be increased by up to 18 percent. While this will be a costly procedure, it sure is much more expensive to build an entirely new dam from the ground!

It is thought that upgrading existing, functional dams that already generate hydropower in the US can add up to 12,000 megawatts of power to the national grid. Furthermore, retrofitting more dams that do not already produce hydropower can almost double USA’s hydropower capacity. Estimates indicate that by powering unpowered dams can add a whopping 12 Gigawatts to the grid. Who needs newly constructed dams?

Newer dams are much more stable than older ones. The technology used in construction has advanced over the years, but so has maintenance. Equipping older dams with modern safety equipment and upgrading existing construction designs can help minimize the risk of flooding. It may also help improve water quality downstream.

Upgrading old dams is an important part of the United States’ hydroelectric power generation infrastructure, and by doing so, it can help to meet environmental goals and improve energy security.

Can upgrading old dams decrease greenhouse gas emissions?

Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, manufacturing, and other sectors account for nearly one-third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Developing countries are expected to make the greatest contributions to global climate change in the coming decades.

Fossil fuels are the primary culprit of harmful greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels trap the sun’s heat from escaping back into space. This is why recently, we as a civilization have been looking for renewable, “cleaner” sources of energy.

Upgrading old dams could go a long way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is primarily because hydropower generation does not involve burning fossil fuels, but rather using the kinetic energy of flowing water to turn a turbine. Upgrading existing dams will add a lot of hydropower-generated electricity to the grid, which will rid the need to use fossil fuels to meet energy demands.

Another way upgrading old dams will decrease greenhouse gasses comes from the fact that older dams themselves contribute to global warming. Surprised? We will explain.

A bacteria present in the water contained within reservoirs are known to be the culprit behind large amounts of methane emissions. Now, it is worth noting that methane emissions are a far more serious problem than CO2 emissions. New technology to address specifically this issue has been developed.

There are several works in progress with the goal of decreasing these methane emissions. Equipping existing, older dams with such technology will decrease their methane emissions considerably. Given the number of old dams in the country, upgrading existing dams and modernizing them will make a significant difference in greenhouse gas emissions.


The United States grapples with a plethora of challenges, with the aging infrastructure being a primary one. The condition of existing dams across the country is a testament to this issue. In this regard, it would be judicious to upgrade existing dams instead of constructing new ones, considering the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

By replacing antiquated hydropower plants with state-of-the-art technology and modernizing the hydropower infrastructure, the country can bolster its hydropower capacity by a significant 12,000 megawatts. However, only a meager fraction of dams in the U.S. are retrofitted, despite the majority of them having the potential to generate hydropower if retrofitted.

In essence, investing in upgrading existing dams not only holds tremendous significance for the country’s future but also presents myriad benefits for the environment and economy. It is a wise and practical step towards increasing hydropower capacity and achieving energy security, akin to a sturdy and reliable pillar supporting the nation’s growth and development.

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