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Solar Panels Can Replace Hydropower Dams In The US While Using Only 13% Of Land Area

As per a new analysis, if all of the hydropower dams in the US were to be removed and replaced with solar panels; only a fraction of the land would be utilized with a higher production of electricity. The idea sure is ambitious, and as of right now that is all that it is; an idea, a thought experiment. Hydropower in the US currently accounts for 6% of the total electricity output.

If you were to remove all of the 2,603 hydro dams located in the US, a vast energy gap would be born. However, it could also allow space for greener opportunities to make their way. Despite being a renewable source of energy, the dams still end up generating huge amounts of greenhouse gases and can remain environmentally destructive. The maintenance cost in the years to come is another con of the dams.

Scientists have also estimated that a total of 530,000 hectares of photovoltaics (PV) would be needed to cover for all of the hydro dams that are currently in use. Five hundred thirty thousand hectares sure sounds a lot, right? In reality, it is quite a modest amount when you compare it with the size of most reservoirs that cover almost 4 million hectares all over the nation. The new analysis has suggested that the substitute solar panels could match the total electricity output of the hydro dams while making use of only 13% of the same land.

John Waldman, an aquatic conservation biologist from the City University of New York, said, ‘I think that’s pretty astonishing and tantalizing too. I’m hoping this presents a different mindset for people who think about our energy futures.’ Simply put, the land that is currently occupied by the reservoirs is huge. If only 50% of that surface was drained and utilized for solar panels, the energy output could be increased by three-and-a-half times the amount of electricity that is being produced by the dams in the US. If only a one-fourth of the land is drained and used for solar panels, energy production goes up by 1.7 times.

The authors have also said, ‘Also, potentially expensive and difficult-to-permit electrical lines that transmitted the hydropower already exist at these locations and could potentially be repurposed to carry electricity from alternative sources.’ By making use of the existing infrastructure, Waldman is hopeful that an energy park could be created in these reservoirs that will prove to be ‘more resilient and more productive than hydropower alone.’ The cost of this transformation has not been evaluated during this new analysis.

Waldman said, ‘Today, recognition of decades of unsuccessful restorations predicated on engineered fishways, the rapid ageing of our dams and the inevitable need for their removal for safety reasons in the years ahead, and the advent of other, increasingly cost-effective forms of alternative energy all suggest that there is a way to both reopen our rivers and to replace the energy production they so long provided.’

Political scientists Jeffrey Dudas, while reviewing the study, said, ‘The thought experiment proposed by Waldman and colleagues is provocative and contributes to outside-the-box thinking about how society can address pressing issues surrounding freshwater sustainability and energy use. However, the next steps will be immensely more complex and require additional, more nuanced analyses and technological innovation to help strike the right balance.’

The findings have been published in Nature Sustainability.