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

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

A good place to start increasing hydropower capacity may be to pay attention to existing dams and modernize them, giving them a significant upgrade to power generation capacity.

The U.S. has a lot of old dams that need upgrading, but it could be more beneficial than you think for the country to do so. In this article, learn about how upgrading old dams can give the U.S. an even greater surge in hydropower capacity and far better energy security.

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 faces a number of challenges, chief among them being our aging infrastructure. This is evident by examining the existing dams across the country.

Weighing all of the benefits against the drawbacks, upgrading existing dams will prove far more beneficial than building new dams. By replacing aging hydropower plants with new advanced technology and modernizing our hydropower infrastructure, we would be able to increase our hydropower capacity by 12,000 megawatts.

Furthermore, only a small fraction of dams in the U.S. are retrofitted. A large majority of dams do not produce any hydropower despite having the potential to, if retrofitted.

In simpler terms, not only would this be an important investment for the country’s future, but it would also provide numerous benefits for both the environment and the economy.

sEARCH Posts


Old Dams

Lastest Posts