Hydroelectric power on a residential scale
It is well known that energy is generated by building dams over giant underwater turbines; however it is possible to use micro hydro generators (<100kW) or pico hydro generators (<5kW) on more modest water flows. In this section we explore where the technology can be used in a small scale area, for example the home or a community project. More about industrial size dams and solutions can be found in the green commercial section.
Obviously, there is a fundamental requirement on a steady stream of moving water, however they have an advantage over solar power (both solar PV and solar heating) and wind, in that they can run day and night and in any weather conditions provided the we don’t have a prolonged drought period where streams and brooks can dry up.
The amount of energy produced is reliant on two things:
The flow of water
The flow of water is simply the quantity of water flowing in the water source, which is measured in litres per second.
The other key factor is the head – this refers to the pressure at which the water hits the turbine blades, and is the vertical distance from the water source to the generator. The larger the distance that the water falls before it hits the blade, the higher the head. Ideally both the flow and the head will be high, however if one of these is particularly high, while the other is low there is still the potential for a rich source of electricity.
You can estimate the number of kilowatts of energy produced by multiplying the flow (litres/sec) by the head (m) and multiplying by 9.81 (gravitational constant). Remember a typical house uses 4500kWh per year.
How does micro hydroelectric work?
The type of turbine that is used varies depending on the type of flow available, however typically a residential generator uses a pipe to collect water from a river or a stream. Using gravity the water moves through the pipe ‘downhill’ and a generator situated within the pipe acts to change the kinetic energy from the water flow into electrical energy.
When you have high head (the vertical distance from the water source to the generator), you are best using an impulse turbine (such as a Pelton turbine). This turbine is not submerged in the water, instead it sits in the air, and consists of buckets around a central hub. The nozzle at the end of the pipe converts the water into a fast moving jet. This jet of water is directed at the buckets, and the force of the the water causes the turbine to spin generating the power. The smallest type of high head turbine requires a head of at least 10-14 metres, and a water flow of 3-4 litres/ second, and this is rated at producing 200 watts of power.
For medium head water flows, it is best to use a reaction turbine. With a 3-12 metre head and a water flow of 45 litres/ second, you can get a reaction turbine that will produce about 3000 watts of power. Obviously as with the high head turbines, if either the head or the flow increases, you will see dramatic increases in the potential electricity your system is capable of generating.
For low head water flows, you obviously require a high flow rate, and in this situation an old style water wheel is the best. So the water fills the buckets which fill up, then pulling the wheel down, so the next bucket is filled, and this process is continued so the wheel spins (albeit very slowly). However the advantage of this type of system is that any potential blockages just simply wash through the system. Gearing can be used in conjunction with water wheels to increase the speed that the generator spins to help electricity production. Water wheels are also aesthetically pleasing on the eye!
Summary of micro hydroelectric power
If you are lucky enough to have a water flow source on your property that either has high head or sizeable flow, a micro hydroelectric generating system may be the perfect solution for your energy needs. Despite potential seasonal fluctuations in flow and head, a micro hydroelectric system will provide you with electricity 24/7, with very little maintenance necessary.