A new federal study shows that Kansas has vast amounts of untapped – hydropower?
The U.S. Department of Energy and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory released a report last week that includes an estimate that there are 2.5 gigawatts of potential electrical energy in Kansas’ rivers, much of it from the Arkansas River. That’s more than enough to power all of the homes in the state.
In the report, Kansas was ranked 12th in the nation in potential hydropower.
The report is an assessment detailing the potential to develop new electric power generation in waterways across the country. Nationally, the report finds there is more than 65 gigawatts of potential hydropower, nearly equivalent to the capacity of existing U.S. hydropower dams.
Department of Energy officials characterized the report as a “conversation starter” rather than anything specific enough to drive a project or policy.
“For a long time, the conversation about hydropower in the U.S. was that there were no further opportunities, and this is meant to change that conversation a bit,” said a DOE official, who spoke on the condition of not being named.
The report came as a bit of a surprise to some in Kansas.
David Barfield, chief engineer of the Kansas Division of Water Resources, said he was trying to understand the report but was having some difficulty.
“The number in Kansas is quite stunningly large,” he said.
He said he could understand, maybe, putting turbines on existing reservoir dams, but that’s different from the new hydropower talked about in the report.
Maybe it includes putting a hydropower dam on the Missouri River, which runs along the Kansas state line north of Kansas City, he said. He finally concluded that the report must be suggesting a series of broad, low dams, he said, considerably different from towering edifices like the Hoover Dam.
But Barfield said he was baffled by the report’s charts and maps showing the greatest hydropower potential along the Arkansas River through the state. For a good length of that distance – between the Kansas state line and about Great Bend – the river doesn’t even flow above ground, except when there is a lot of rain in the region. It usually appears as a dry streambed.
“That’s a mystery to me,” Barfield said. “I mean, you’ve got to have water to generate hydropower, right?”
The report does suggest that the dams would have to be low. Dams on the middle section of the Arkansas River, the one rated the highest in the region for hydropower potential, would have to be less than 10 feet high.
“The river doesn’t fall much, but it has plenty of volume,” said one of the report’s authors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who also spoke on the condition of not being named. Hydropower potential is simply a function of the amount of water and how fast it’s falling, he said.
There are a variety of ways to tap into the power generated by a river as shallow as the Arkansas, but he said he would have to have engineers study further how to generate hydropower on the underground portion.
Kansas has one hydropower dam of any size: the privately owned Bowersock Mills and Power Co. on the Kansas River in Lawrence. It has capacity for 7 megawatts – 0.3 percent of the estimated state potential.
Sarah Hill-Nelson, who operates the dam, said she’s a big believer in more hydropower in Kansas and the U.S. as a way to increase clean energy – eventually. Hydropower makes up 7 percent of total U.S. electricity generation and is the country’s largest source of renewable electricity.
Developing hydropower in Kansas is a very long-term project, she said, considering the expense, the politics and the difficulties in getting a permit for a new dam.
Hydropower facilities are expensive to build, she said, but last for decades, if not longer, eventually making it a comparatively cheap form of electricity.
In order to realistically expand hydropower in Kansas, Hill-Nelson said, it would have to come from adding power-generating turbines to existing dams.
“Making a project pencil out can be really hard over the first 25 years,” she said, “so leveraging assets like existing dams makes that more possible.”