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US Forest Service Harnesses Hydropower without Having to Build a Dam

Posted by Robert H. Westover, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Forest Service in Energy Forestry
Mar 30, 2012

The Spotted Bear Ranger Station at the Flathead National Forest in western Montana generates electricity using micro-hydropower. Like a traditional hydro dam, this small water system converts the energy of flowing water into electricity. When the water level of Addition Creek on the ranger station is adequate, the micro-hydropower system produces enough electricity to supply the entire compound which consists of 31 small buildings.

The micro-hydropower system at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station.
The micro-hydropower system at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station.

This is great news for sustainable energy advocates because micro-hydropower can provide rural communities with an easy to maintain and long-term solution to their energy needs. Many rural communities in the U.S. are already employing various types of micro-hydropower.

Like the old mill operations of the past, these systems do not require a dam or storage facility to be constructed but simply divert water from a stream or river then channel it into a valley and 'drop' it into a turbine via some type of funneling system or pipelines. Consequently, this type of hydro generation avoids the damaging environmental effects that larger hydroelectric dams create.

At present, the Spotted Bear Ranger Station is the only known Forest Service facility to harness this type of renewable energy.

Category/Topic: Energy Forestry

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Julie Ito
Mar 30, 2012

Respectable pioneering competence is showcased it articles like this. It makes me feel there are still many innovate solutions out there, and it is wonderful to see them actually carried out! Thanks for your critical thinking skills people of Spotted Bear Ranger Station.

Don Pugh
Mar 31, 2012

Whoa! You have hydropower that diverts water from the stream channel, passes fish through turbines (crossflow?) and that prevents upstream passage of fish. Clearly the environmental impacts of traditional hydropower (diverting water, passing fish through turbines, and preventing upstream passage) are not present. Congratulations Orwell.

John Bolander II
Apr 02, 2012

This is so cool. You get the needed electricity with little impact on nature and can help keep the cost of maintaining the campsite down.

Apr 03, 2012

These things are awesome. They leave the primary stream alone providing water during higher flow events to generate power. The larger dams could do something similar in reverse perhaps. Provide a diversion at the pool head that bypasses the dam. Could be possible to get juveniles past the turbines and let adults upstream.

Bernhard Voelkelt
Apr 09, 2012

Small and micro hydropower can indeed address many issues pertaining to sustainable development. These include regulating the flow of water during low and high runoff periods; stabilizing the creek or small river beds, preventing erosion; keeping water in the surrounding area long, giving it time to seep into deeper soil layers and aquifers; enhancing bio-diversity by providing water to areas that typically see water only for a short period; and, of course providing renewable energy. There are also concerns with fish being hindered in movement and passing through turbines, as John Bolander points out. However, these concerns can easily be mitigated with proper design and protection measures.

The energy potential of small and micro hydropower in the US is huge and it is nice to see a growing interest. In Europe small and micro hydropower has seen an incredible renaissance in the reactivation of closed mills that 100 years ago provided energy and work for thousands of people. Tens of thousands of mills were shut down during the 50s and 60s. With the need to develop the potential of renewable energy, this trend came to a stop in the 80's and today many of the old mills are being reactivated incorporating the latest understanding in environmental design and technology. I have 30 years of experience in this field, being in charge of a small hydropower plant capable of producing 600,000 kWh a year, and would be happy to answer questions or assist.