The Federal Power Commission (FPC) has determined that if 10 percent of the 50,000 small dams in existence today in the United States were developed, the energy equivalent of 180 million barrels of oil per year could be saved.
Perhaps the greatest waste of hydroelectric potential is in New England, the part of the country with the highest average fuel bills. There, 228 small hydro plants have been abandoned in the last 30 years. For the last 150 years New England drew its energy largely from falling water. Now there is diminishing reliance on these sites, due to “bigger is better” sales talks by the large power companies. There is hardly a state where dozens of old hydropower sites have not been abandoned.
Only 1,400 of our 50,000 small dams have been developed for power generation. There are 343 flood control dams in the northeastern U. S., and many of these could be made to accommodate power stations without compromising their original function. The potential capacity of the navigation dams on the Ohio, Arkansas, and Mississippi rivers could possibly be in the millions of kilowatts.
Small and medium-sized projects (i.e., 5,000-20,000 kw) can be developed at lower capital costs per unit and will produce energy at lower production costs per unit than the huge new generating stations using less permanent, less reliable, more hazardous resources: And they can be built quickly compared to the ten to twelve years required for a nuclear plant.
These small plants could provide lighting for schools, streets, parks, and other community purposes, at prices lower than the norm. They would generate power at prices that would permit small industries to stay in business and keep on employing people. More importantly, they would allow people in communities to help themselves, to conserve nonrenewable resources, and to, on a local level, bypass governmental energy policy politics.
In view of our national energy dilemma and the shortage of coverage this issue has received, this story deserves nomination for one of the “Ten Best Censored Stories of 1977.”
SOURCE: “Lost Megawatts Flow Over Nation’s Myriad Spillways,” by David E. Lilienthal (ex-chairman of the A.E.C., and presently head of Development and Resources Corporation), Smithsonian Magazine, September 1977, pp. 83+.