Emerging Hydropower Technologies R&D in Canada - A Strategy for 2007-2011

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Natural Resources Canada
Hydraulic Energy Group

CETC Number 2009_Hydro_01 / 2009-10-01

Executive Summary

Hydropower is clean and renewable, and it is the most predictable of the renewable energy sources. Run-of-river hydro plants capture the energy of flowing water with little or no storage and include small and low-head hydro. These types of developments can bring about environmental and socio-economic benefits through integrated design, multipurpose planning and community involvement. Small hydro is especially attractive as an alternative to highly polluting and very costly diesel generation that currently provides electric energy in most remote communities across Canada. There is also a growing interest in water current or in-stream potential in Canada and internationally for power production using ‘zero head’ turbines, which require no dams or barrages.

The small hydro subsector contributes $150 million to the Canadian economy annually through local and overseas projects. Annual addition to generation capacity from small hydro represents an estimated $200 million in investments. The typical investment cost ranges (in $Can) from $2,000 to $5,000 per installed kW, with an overall cost of energy of $0.04 to $0.10 per kWh. However, capital costs for projects in remote areas are usually much higher and can exceed $6000 per kW. Water current technologies are expected to enter the market by 2010 with about five major international players, and capital costs are expected to decline to $1000-$4000 by 2015.

The current small hydro capacity in Canada is approximately 3400 MW, and new capacity is growing at a rate of 50-150 MW/y . It is estimated that about 15% of the identified small hydro potential of 15,000 MW , would be strong candidates for development under current socio-economic conditions and with existing state-of-the-art technologies. There is also significant potential in Canada for low-head hydro, a portion of which could become economical with a reduction in equipment costs. A recent study in Ontario identified over 4000 MW of low-head hydro potential. Water current potential in Canada is largely unknown.

The global potential for small hydropower is much greater and could also be exploited with beneficial economic and environmental payoffs. The World Energy Council (WEC) estimates that, under current policies, installed capacity of small hydro will increase to 55 GW by 2010, with the largest increase coming in China. Under the favourable case scenario developed by the World Energy Council (WEC), installed capacity will increase to about 75 GW by 2020. All regions of the world are experiencing significant increases in small hydro capacity, with China again showing the largest increase.

In Canada, the recent calls for renewable energy RFPs, standard offer programs and net-metering in provinces across Canada have helped to strengthen interest in small hydropower development. There has also been a positive policy shift to improving relations with First Nations and including them as active hydro project partners. However, developers encounter long lead times required for approvals and projects can become arbitrarily derailed by opposition during the public participation process. In recent years, provincial governments have begun to address some of these issues/barriers using a more streamlined and sustainable watershed management approach, and the federal government has recently come on board as well.

In Canada and internationally, the perception is that hydropower is a mature technology and has few R&D requirements. As a result, many governments, organizations and businesses have not kept up with new innovations or attracted or allocated new R&D funding. Another significant issue facing the hydropower industry in Canada and abroad is the aging workforce: it is estimated that there are only 10 years of expertise left in Canada.

While some countries have moved away from emerging hydropower technologies R&D, the European Union (EU) continues to carry out R&D in small hydro, and there is renewed hope in the U.S. that their hydropower R&D program will be reinstated. The EU has shown a keen interest in addressing aging hydro sites, particularly tapping into the large low-head potential of abandoned sites and water resources infrastructure.

Developing the Canadian potential requires advances in R&D to make development economically viable. While conventional small hydro is close to being competitive with other energy sources, there are still a number of emerging technologies that need R&D, including economical and efficient low-head turbines, mitigation technologies and eco-engineering and protection of aquatic resources. In addition, water current technologies are at a similar R&D stage to that of wind 10 years ago.

Over the last 25 years, the federal government has been supporting small-scale hydro emerging technologies. The Hydraulic Energy Group (HEG) is actively involved with provinces, utilities, private industry, academic institutions and other organizations on key projects to reduce equipment and construction costs and increase turbine and site efficiencies, as well as to support technology demonstrations nationally and internationally. NRCan’s Panel on Energy Research and Development (PERD) has been supporting the hydraulic machinery laboratory (LAMH) at Laval University over the last 10 years to become the only independent hydro turbine-testing laboratory in Canada. The laboratory fills an important gap in Canadian R&D capacity by enabling independent, credible testing of innovative turbine designs within North America.
Planned R&D work to be carried out and supported by the Hydraulic Energy Group of CanmetENERGY at NRCan over the next four years covers three main R&D themes:

  • Competitive low-head and water current systems
  • Eco-engineering
  • Site assessment

This R&D work will also be supported by key infrastructure, stakeholder engagement, market analysis and communications products and activities.

These R&D themes were also identified by the IEA as high priority technology needs for small hydropower and were reiterated at a recent Hydro Technical Advisory Committee 2007 meeting in April 2007. NRCan’s T&I expert group also rated low-head hydro as a high priority area.

The international low-head hydro and low-impact hydro markets are still open, and Canada has an opportunity to lead cutting-edge R&D research and penetrate those markets.