New Computer Promotes Small Scale Hydro Power

When we think of renewable energy, most of us think first of solar power, then wind, then hydro. While using water to turn a turbine is an old idea, it usually involves building dams. The construction is expensive and takes a long time. When complete, dams can have a negative impact on aquatic life and other undesirable effects.

Small scale hydro power

Now a team of engineers at Oregon State University have created a computer modeling package that people anywhere in the world can use to assess the potential of a stream for small-scale, “run of river” hydro power. This option does not require building a dam. It is easy to use and can be an important means of bringing electricity to parts of the world where none is available.

“There are parts of northern Pakistan, for instance, where about half of rural homes don’t have access to electricity, and systems such as this are one of the few affordable ways to produce it. The strength of this system is that it will be simple for people to use, and it’s pretty accurate even though it can work with limited data on the ground,” says Kendra Sharp, a professor of humanitarian engineering at the OSU College of Engineering.

The main feature of the new program is that it can predict the power available from a proposed installation with considerable accuracy even if there is little to no historic data on water flow available from local authorities. It can even make adjustments in its prediction model for future changes in climate and stream runoff. OSU experts say that people, agencies, or communities interested in the potential for small-scale hydro power can easily and accurately assess whether it would meet their current and future energy needs.

Small-scale hydro power is a popular choice because it can be developed with fairly basic and cost competitive technology. It does not require large dams or reservoirs to function. A basic system diverts part of a stream into a holding basin, with a self cleaning screen that keeps debris, insects, fish and other objects from entering the system. The diverted water is then channeled to and fed through a turbine at a lower elevation before returning the water to the stream.

Previously, most tools used to assess specific sites for their small-scale hydro power potential have not been able to consider the impacts of future changes in weather and climate. They are also dependent on data that is often unavailable in developing nations.

This free, open source software program was developed by Thomas Mosier, who at the time was a graduate student at OSU, in collaboration with Sharp and David Hill, an OSU associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering. It is now available to anyone on request by e-mail to

Source and photo credit: Oregon State University

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