Government dams, canals, projects could power 85,000 more homes

Seventy government-owned dams, canals, tunnels and other water projects could generate enough electricity to power 85,000 households, the Interior Department has determined, in its search for alternative energy sources.

Scattered across 17 Western states, the predominately rural sites together could generate a million megawatts of electricity a year, Anne Castle, Interior's assistant secretary for water and science, said Thursday.

After a detailed study of 530 government-owned dams and similar facilities, the department's Bureau of Reclamation judged 70 of them to be economically feasible for power production.

If the sites are developed to generate electricity, they also would produce 1,200 new jobs, without building new dams, Castle said during a press conference.

Interior aims to entice private developers and municipalities to develop hydropower at its sites. The department calls hydropower "the largest source of renewable electricity generation in the United States." Since 2005, the department has been under congressional instruction to evaluate federally owned facilities for their potential to generate electricity.

To determine the hydropower potential, the Bureau of Reclamation developed a computerized Hydropower Assessment Tool that calculates power generation potential, project costs and economic benefits of particular sites.

The tool is built on an easy-to-use Excel spreadsheet with embedded macro functions that take in data, such as water flows and turbine types, for specific sites. It then factors in other considerations, such as power-generating potential, development costs and economic benefits, to determine which sites warrant developing.

The Bureau of Reclamation is making the tool available to private hydropower developers, municipalities and the public.

In at least 70 locations, adding hydro-generating capability to existing dams "is a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way to build our clean energy economy," Castle said. The bureau's hydropower analysis was released a day after President Obama called for the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by a third during the next decade.

"This report highlights the exciting potential for substantial hydropower development" in the Western states, Castle said.

Michael Connor, the bureau's commissioner, said the greatest potential for extracting electricity from existing dams resides in Colorado, Nevada and Utah, according to the report, which was titled "Hydropower Resource Assessment at Existing Reclamation Facilities."

The bureau anticipates private companies, municipalities or other "nonfederal entities" developing the hydropower projects. It plans to offer "power privilege agreements" to site developers, Connor said.

Those agreements would give lease holders the right to use the bureau's facilities for up to 40 years for power generation.

The Bureau of Reclamation was created more than a century ago to develop irrigation, hydropower and other water projects in the West. It operates hundreds of dams and reservoirs, including the Hoover Dam, and 58 hydroelectric power plants.