Empowering Resilience in Energy and Water Systems: Addressing Barriers to Implementation of Urban Hydroelectric Micro-turbines

Posted: July 27, 2017 at 12:14 pm

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Jennifer F. Sklarew, Ph.D., Senior Fellow for Energy Policy, Center for Energy Science and Policy, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University

Dann M. Sklarew, Ph.D., Associate Director, Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University


Energy and water systems face numerous challenges to resilience.  These include technological and infrastructure vulnerabilities, institutional struggles, and supply-demand balance uncertainties. The interdependence of these systems can compound these challenges, particularly in communities facing severe energy and water insecurity.  For instance, providing access to electricity can consume water to produce steam for power generation.  It can pollute water with mining and power generation byproducts, and it also can alter aquatic habitats through water use, heating, and diversion.  Providing access to clean water can use energy resources to divert flow and pump upstream.  Water purification, desalination, and temperature control also use energy.

Highlighting the energy-water nexus as a critical area for future global growth and challenges, the 2016 IEA World Energy Outlook predicts that energy production will require more water due to the spread of advanced cooling technologies, as well as expanded biofuels, nuclear power, concentrated solar, and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).  The report projects at least a doubling of the amount of energy used in the water sector by 2040, due to rising demand for desalination and wastewater treatment.[1]  This growing interdependence of energy and water systems can threaten the resilience of both.  It also can offer opportunities to jointly improve both systems’ resilience.

Hydropower Micro-turbines as a Potential Solution

Absorption capacity barriers and high costs challenge the large-scale use of resiliency-enhancing technologies at the energy-water nexus. Newer technologies with reduced maintenance requirements and smaller scale applications offer solutions to concurrently improve clean water and electricity access. Hydropower micro-turbines provide one such solution.  These turbines typically use the natural flow of water to produce 5 to 100 kW of electricity; pico-hydro systems produce less. Micro- and pico-turbines do not require large dams or other significant infrastructure that can increase greenhouse gas emissions, cost, and maintenance requirements. They do not consume or pollute water.  This technology thus can overcome some of the challenges associated with trade-offs between water and energy system resilience.

Several types of hydropower micro-turbine technologies currently exist.  Run of the river, small hydrokinetic turbines are available in various designs based on available flow and head. They require very little infrastructure to operate.  However, since they rely on the natural flow from rivers, these turbines face limitations from seasonal or inconsistent flow.  By contrast, in-pipe hydroelectric turbines can leverage storm water or drinking water system flow to promote potable water and storm water management, while concurrently bolstering local electricity supply.  In-pipe turbines thus can simultaneously contribute to the environmental stewardship, sustainability, and resilience goals of storm water management and green power generation. However, these turbines require more infrastructure than run of the river turbines. Few options currently exist for in-pipe turbine technology, offering a market opportunity for innovation to address various challenges.

Lessons from Existing Cases: Challenges to Micro-turbine Implementation

Successful application of hydropower micro-turbines requires understanding of the technical, ecological, geological, socio-economic, and institutional barriers to their use.

Examining existing projects reveals some of these barriers and potential solutions.  Several U.S. pilots explore micro-turbine use in drinking water and storm water pipes, including Lucid Energy’s projects in Portland, Oregon and Riverside, California.[2] Some university projects use existing dams and weirs on rivers to produce power.  Skidmore College,[3] Notre Dame,[4] and Bennington College[5] serve as examples.

A number of international examples also offer lessons. One town’s project in Japan’s Kochi Prefecture uses irrigation flow to power turbines.[6]   A project in Sri Lanka uses run of the river turbines built, owned, and operated by the community through an electricity consumer society (ECS), a type of power cooperative.[7]

These cases suggest several common barriers; the projects’ designs also indicate some solutions.  Technological barriers include a lack of technical knowledge needed for turbine and related equipment maintenance.  Solutions include working with local partners to enable training and knowledge acquisition needed for long-term maintenance.  Geographical barriers include the requirement of a reliable hydraulic head to keep turbines running, as well as erratic flow that poses technical challenges for conventional turbines.  Solutions include development of turbines capable of harnessing both slow and rapid flow.  Ecological barriers include physical and biological disruption of storm water management equipment.  Solutions include regular turbine and pipe inspections and maintenance.  Short-term socio-economic challenges include funding for construction of turbines and electricity production equipment.  Long-term socio-economic barriers include turbine and related equipment maintenance and repair costs, as well as protection of turbine and electricity production infrastructure from theft and vandalism.  Solutions include public-private partnerships and community ownership, education and employment.  Finally, institutional barriers include lengthy, costly licensing processes, lengthy permitting processes, corruption, and community acceptance and support. Solutions, which overlap with those for other types of challenges, include local government support and community ownership, education and employment.  Resolving energy and water system resilience challenges requires identification and resolution of all of these types of challenges.

Pilot Project to Build Resilience through Holistic Best Practices

Building on these collective lessons, a multidisciplinary project conducted by faculty from George Mason University’s College of Science (COS) and Volgenau School of Engineering (VSE) develops a holistic assessment of barriers and potential solutions for hydropower micro-turbine use.  The approach integrates energy and environmental policy with science, geography, mechanical engineering, water resources and environmental engineering, and international development.  Seeded by a grant from COS, the project focuses on deployment in urban areas facing acute energy and water insecurity.  The research team, led by Dr. Jennifer Sklarew of COS’ Department of Environmental Science and Policy (ESP), includes ESP’s Dr. Dann Sklarew; Dr. Paul Houser from COS’ Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science; Dr. Colin Reagle from VSE’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Drs. Viviana Maggioni and Celso Ferreira from VSE’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.  The project team also includes students in engineering, environmental science and policy, sustainability studies, physics, and global affairs.

The project tests three hypotheses. First, challenges to hydropower micro-turbine deployment vary by location. Second, institutional relationships can create, worsen, or mitigate these challenges, hindering or enabling turbine deployment. Third, addressing relationships and identifying solutions to challenges can enable hydropower micro-turbine features that foster energy and water system resilience.


To test these hypotheses and support micro-turbines’ joint contributions to energy and water system resilience, the project team is first building and deploying two micro-turbines in storm water runoff pipes on George Mason University’s Fairfax campus.  Through the pilot, the team will identify any technical, geographical, ecological, institutional, and socio-economic challenges and assess potential solutions. The team will use the pilot’s energy output to test and assess small-scale applications, such as emergency lighting and cell phone charging stations. An overseas pilot in a developing country will follow.

Expected Pilot Findings

The project expects to find that institutional support plays a pivotal role in resolving the other types of challenges.  Key institutional factors involve contributors to absorption capacity for the technology. These contributors include understanding and long-term commitment from local authorities and citizens; policy support; and overlap and differences within and between these two groups regarding energy and water priorities.  This institutional support can foster solutions to technological, geographical, ecological, and socio-economic challenges.  It can promote accurate assessments of geographical parameters that will enable technical solutions to variable or slow or low flow. It can encourage prioritization of potable water or storm water management in development of plans to deploy turbines.  It can foster long-term financial stability and build community support for long-term operation and maintenance of the turbines and related equipment.

These findings will help to enable hydropower micro-turbines to play a key role in building resilience of local communities’ energy and water systems.  Findings from the U.S. pilot will be applied in a developing nation pilot to assess challenges and identify solutions for communities with limited resources.

Energy and Water for All: Developing Nation Pilot

Many less economically developed nations are striving to jointly improve access to safe drinking water and electricity.  Many also struggle with management of storm water from seasonal flooding.  These resilience goals can be perceived as conflicting.  Hydropower micro-turbine technology can help to address this conflict, promoting clean water and electricity access, as well as storm water management.  The Mason project’s international pilot will aim to identify the necessary technological, geographical, ecological, institutional, and socio-economic features needed for deployment in communities facing severe energy and water insecurity.  From these analyses, the project will generate best practices that will facilitate successful applications of micro-turbine technology even in these areas with the greatest electricity and water needs.

The Mason project team selected Ghana and India as potential candidates for the international pilot, based on these nations’ solid progress in both electricity and drinking water access from 1990-2012. This advancement suggests that they may possess the institutional support for combined resilience-building across both systems.

During this period, Ghana increased electricity access from 24 percent to 63 percent of the population, while simultaneously increasing clean water access from 56 percent to 85 percent of the population.[8] Ghana’s government increased electricity and water access through separate initiatives.  Electricity access improvements emerged from government-led initiatives for large-scale and small-scale grid connections. These include the government’s 1989 Self-Help Electrification Programme (SHEP) to connect communities within 20 km of the existing network if these communities provide the voltage poles and a minimum number of households.[9]  Local advances came from NGO-led off-grid solar installations.  The Ghanaian population’s clean water access improved through use of groundwater technologies: boreholes, hand-dug wells, solar-powered water pumps, and community pipe systems.[10]

During the same period, India’s government implemented separate national-level initiatives that increased electricity access from 51 percent to 78 percent of the population, while concurrently increasing clean water access from 71 percent to 93 percent of the population.[11]  In 1989, the government introduced a single-point connection program for households below the poverty line.  The Electricity Act of 2003 required the government to supply electricity to rural areas through grid extension and distributed generation.[12] In 2005, the government implemented the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) rural electrification program, with the goal of providing all rural households with electricity access within five years.[13] The government also employed national-level renewable energy projects, including large-scale wind power investment, family biogas plants, solar streetlights, solar lanterns, solar PV systems, and micro-hydro plants.[14]  The inclusion of micro-hydro plants as part of a national policy to improve electricity access signals that small-scale local projects for remote communities could receive institutional support.  Arora, et al., cite the existence of “federal and state programs supporting small hydro as a means of supplying electricity to villages where providing access to the central grid is challenging.”[15]  India’s government improved clean water access through the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, implemented in 1991.[16]  This initiative focused on community participation.  In 2005, the Bharat Nirman Program shifted from wells and boreholes to pipe systems to improve water cleanliness and expand access.

These programs and progress demonstrate Ghana’s and India’s commitment to cultivating energy and water system access and resilience.  And yet, Ghana and India continue to face demographic, geographical, and economic challenges that inhibit their further advancement toward national and local level resilience in these systems.  The Mason pilot in one of these countries can identify and test the parameters for successful hydropower micro-turbine projects in communities experiencing difficulty in achieving electricity and water access.

Toward Global Energy and Water System Resilience

As nations across the globe strive to build energy and water system resilience, hydropower micro-turbines can offer a joint solution in certain contexts. National governments and local communities can benefit from a holistic perspective on lessons learned from existing projects.  By identifying and addressing challenges in a developed nation pilot and a developing nation pilot, Mason’s project will inform policies in both developed and developing nations.  These pilots’ deployment in a well-endowed community and a resource-constrained community also will enlighten a variety of local communities’ efforts.   The analyses of existing projects and the two pilots will generate lessons that can enable deployment even in communities experiencing the most severe water and electricity access, as well as limited resources and inadequate institutional capacity.

Building on 20 years of energy policy experience in the U.S. and Japanese governments and private sector, Dr. Jennifer Sklarew focuses her research on two areas: how institutional relationships and catastrophic events drive energy and climate policymaking; and integrative solutions to challenges at the energy-water-climate nexus. The Senior Fellow for Energy Policy at Mason’s Center for Energy Science and Policy, she also teaches energy policy courses she developed for Mason’s Environmental Science and Policy Department.

Dann Sklarew’s research examines socio-ecological aspects of adaptive management of water-related natural resources at local through international scales. Building upon a career as an environmental consultant and United Nations/Global Environmental Facility project manager, Dr. Sklarew has been a sustainability leader, professor and practitioner at George Mason University since 2008.


[1] International Energy Agency, IEA World Energy Outlook  (2016), https://www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2016/november/world-energy-outlook-2016.html.

[2] For more information, see LucidEnergy.  http://lucidenergy.com/how-it-works/.

[3] Karen Kellogg and Caroline Hobbs, “A Case Study of Small Hydropower,” The Solutions Journal 7, no. 1 (Mar. 2016): 46-54, https://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/article/a-case-study-of-small-hydropower/.

[4] Dennis Brown, “Notre Dame Finalizes Agreement to Construct Hydro Facility on St. Joseph River,”  Notre Dame News, Dec. 12, 2016, http://news.nd.edu/news/notre-dame-finalizes-agreement-to-construct-hydro-facility-on-st-joseph-river/.

[5] Jim Therrein, “Two Small Hydropower Sites Planned in North Bennington,” VT Digger, Apr. 9, 2017, https://vtdigger.org/2017/04/09/two-small-hydropower-sites-planned-north-bennington/.

[6] Greenz.jp, “Micro-Hydro Power Picking Up Spead As More Rural Towns Want To Go Off-Grid,” Treehugger, July 8, 2009, https://www.treehugger.com/clean-water/micro-hydro-power-picking-up-spead-as-more-rural-towns-want-to-go-off-grid.html.

[7] Kapila Subasinghe, “Grid Interconnection of Micro/Mini Hydro Mini-Grids: What Happens When the National Grid Arrives?,”Energypedia, Webinar presented on June 1, 2017, https://energypedia.info/wiki/Mini-grid_Webinar_Series#tab=2nd_Webinar:_Grid-Interconnection.

[8] The World Bank, “Access to Electricity”, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.ELC.ACCS.ZS?end=2012&page=5&start=1990; —, “Improved Water Source,” http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.H2O.SAFE.ZS?end=2012&page=5&start=1990.

[9] Alix Clark, Mark Davis, Anton Eberhard, Katharine Gratwick, and Njeri Wamukonya, Power Sector Reform in Africa: Assessing the Impact on Poor People, Report Prepared by the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2005), http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTAFRREGTOPENERGY/Resources/ESMAP_PowerSectorReform_in_Africa.pdf.

[10] United Nations Development Programme, 2012 Ghana Millennium Development Goals Report, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG%20Report%202012.pdf.

[11] World Bank, supra note 8.

[12] D.S. Arora, Sarah Busche, Shannon Cowlin, Tobias Engelmeier, Hanna Jaritz, Anelia Milbrandt, and Shannon Wang,   “Indian Renewable Energy Status Report Background Report for DIREC 2010 NREL/TP-6A20-48948,” (2010), http://www.ren21.net/Portals/0/documents/Resources/Indian_RE_Status_Report.pdf.

[13] Anita Nath,“India’s Progress Toward Achieving the Millennium Development Goals,”  Indian Journal of Community Medicine 36, no. 2: 85–92 (2011), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3180952/.

[14] D.S. Arora, et. al.

[15] D.S. Arora, et. al., xi.

[16] Programme Evaluation Organization Planning Commission, Government of India, Evaluation Study on the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission (Nov. 2010),  http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/peoreport/peoevalu/peo_rgndwm.pdf.

Write to the Editors at ciprpt@gmu.edu