Hydropower: untapped energy?

| 17th December 2019
California river
We need to increase our energy resource by 35 percent by 2035 - it's time we start harnessing water.

While pure water is already powering our world, capitalizing on it can be expensive when building new plants. Modular hydropower systems aim to lower construction costs while reducing the impact on the environment.

Our world changed forever when ancient civilizations discovered that water could be used as a source of power.

The Greeks and Romans drew water for irrigation, which improved their agricultural productivity. Now, water is a necessity in generating hydropower, extracting fuels and cooling thermal power plants. Water security and energy are essential to human and economic development worldwide.

As the world's population increases, so too does the competition for these elements. By 2035, the consumption of water and energy resources will increase by nearly 35 percent. Rapid expenditure of water, paired with rising global temperatures, creates more uncertainty surrounding water security. Severe floods and droughts brought on by a lack of water will make it harder to generate electricity from water sources.

Ocean energy

Currently, hydraulic energy makes up 18 percent of the world's electricity production, and engineers are now studying even more ways to use water to generate power.

If done correctly, these new techniques could drastically reduce emissions and save costs in operation. To keep using water's natural currents in the future, energy choices made today must be smart and sustainable. 

The world's energy systems are inseparably linked to water. That is why engineers are working on harnessing the power of ocean energies and undammed river currents. Examples of ocean energies include wave energy, tidal energy, thermal energy and underwater energy created by ocean currents. 

Although the process of capturing ocean energy has not yet reached maturity, it is extremely promising. Converters are able to capture the energy contained in waves by trapping air pockets to drive turbines, using wave motion and even generating energy from wave height differences.

Tides also produce energy captured through tidal-range technologies that use a type of barrage to harvest power created between high and low tide. 

Untapped energy

Ocean salinity also produces energy. Known as "salinity gradient energy," this type of power arises from different salt concentrations when rivers empty into oceans.

Current demonstration projects utilize pressure retarded osmosis or reverse electrodialysis to experiment with this concept. In pressure osmosis, freshwater flows through a membrane into a tank of saltwater to increase its pressure.

Another promising power source is ocean thermal energy conversion. Temperature differences between cooler deep seawaters and warmer shallow seawaters have the potential to produce incredible amounts of electricity.

Studies estimate that simply harnessing two one-thousandths of the untapped energy of the ocean can provide enough power to satisfy the current worldwide demand. 

Ocean energy demonstrates an impressive amount of potential for energy creation. In reality, we have barely scraped the surface of what the world's oceans have to offer since the deepest waters remain unexplored.

Although waves and tides are seasonal, they are more predictable and constant than current energy sources like wind and sunlight. Consistency is the key to generating power. 

Hydropower advancements

Pairing water with the power of technology can increase the consistency of this energy source even more. The hydropower industry is currently working on implementing the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to digitise hydropower efforts. This will reduce carbon emissions and save on operation costs.

IIoT technology is generally used to collect and analyze information in real time. These technologies allow machines to communicate autonomously with other instruments to identify trends and provide actionable insights for improvement.

Hydropower operators can use this technology to leverage data and further optimize their power plants.

While pure water is already powering our world, capitalizing on it can be expensive when building new plants. Modular hydropower systems aim to lower construction costs while reducing the impact on the environment. This type of hydropower uses separate components that are constructed off-site and later easily integrated into existing sites. 

Advancements in hydropower and the harnessing of other water resources are serious alternatives for the future of energy worldwide. While engineers and scientists are still developing some processes, proper planning and investment can ensure their full potential is met. 

Solutions for the future of energy depend on a variety of factors, including finances, environment and available technology.

What's essential is that planners and decision-makers consider existing water constraints and stay informed on how to deal with those issues sustainably. 

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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