MSU 'rethinks hydropower' with $2.6 million National Science Foundation grant

Published February 14, 2017

An interdisciplinary team of MSU scientists are investigating new ways to produce hydropower, increase food production and lessen the environmental damage caused by dams.

An interdisciplinary team of Michigan State University scientists, including hydrogeologist David Hyndman, will use a four-year, $2.6 million National Science Foundation grant to investigate new ways to produce hydropower, increase food production and lessen the environmental damage caused by dams.

Some 3,700 major dams are either planned or under construction worldwide, yet large dams impact river flows and temperatures and blocking fish migration. Far-away urban residents tend to pay less for dam-produced energy, while nearby rural residents pay more. And farmers rarely prosper from the sediment that builds up behind dams.

MSU’s project, “Rethinking dams: Innovative hydropower solutions to achieve sustainable food and energy production and sustainable communities,” aims to find solutions to these problems. These solutions could include innovative technology geared toward smaller dams and in-water turbines, ways to move nutrient-rich sediment onto farm fields to increase food production and strategies to fix the unfair price structure of dam-produced energy.

“This project will generate innovative solutions to produce renewable energy from hydropower, increase food production and lessen negative environmental and social impacts that have reduced the acceptability of hydropower development in the United States, Europe and across the world,” said Emilio Moran, MSU Hannah Distinguished Professor and principal investigator of the project. “If we are to make hydropower part of the renewable energy grid, we need better hydropower solutions. This is what we are after.”

NatSci hydrogeologist David Hyndman in the Amazon River Basin, where he and other MSU scientists are examining the potential impacts of different hydropower developoment scenarios there.

“This project provides our interdisciplinary team with an excellent opportunity to examine the potential impacts of different hydropower development scenarios for the Amazon River Basin on streamflow, power production, fisheries and communities that live in the basin,” added Hyndman, who is also chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Natural Science (NatSci) and project co-investigator.

The team, which is comprised of MSU civil engineers, hydrogeologists, climatologists, economists and biologists, will focus on the epicenter of hydropower development, the Amazon Basin. The scientists will assess the full impact of dams and ultimately attempt “to fit hydropower to the diverse situations of people who are near the dams and to find the right technology.” Team engineers will design in-water turbines that could be prototypes for new ways to generate hydropower without the negative social or environmental costs.

Other MSU co-investigators include Maria Claudia Lopez from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Norbert Mueller from the College of Engineering and Nathan Moore from the College of Social Science.