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MSU hydro study may improve U.S. dam system

dam on Grand River
Kevin Lavery
The North Lansing Dam near the city's Old Town neighborhood was built more than 80 years ago. It no longer produces hydroelectric power.

Michigan is all about water.  Aside from touching four of the five Great Lakes, our state has some 300 rivers.  A handful of them help generate power through 13 hydroelectric plants.

A Michigan State University team is using a $2.6 million federal grant to study more environmentally efficient ways to produce hydropower.  They believe their work overseas could provide lessons for improving American waterways. 

There’s about 75,000 dams in the United States.  Most of the giants like Hoover and Grand Coulee were built in the 1930’s and 40’s, when American factories needed wattage, and American folks needed work.

But in the 21st century, hydroelectricity is in decline.  Far more dams are being removed every year in the United States than are being built.

Dr. Emilio Moran, a Hannah Distinguished Professor in the Michigan State University department of geology, says the social and environmental cost of dams is just getting too high.

“The dams remove nutrients that would normally flow down the river, and so there’s less food for the fish,” Moran explains.  “And there’s usually a huge amount of impact on communities near dams which are impacted by construction, by the change in the fishery, and they tend to suffer enormous consequences.”

But dams are widely used in much of the developing world.  Moran and his team are studying hydroelectric generation on the Amazon.  They have an idea in mind which they believe might better harness the power of water.


“What we are proposing is to look at new ways to produce hydropower that do not involve big dams,” he says.  “It may involve in-water turbines that would float in the river that would generate considerable power without impeding the flow of nutrients and fish in the river.”

Moran says in-water turbines also avoid large construction projects that may displace riverside communities.  He adds they could also generate power for small communities at a price point that ensures a level of energy independence.

Moran believes the hydropower management lessons he may learn in Brazil could one day be applied in the U.S.  

Michigan has about 2,500 dams.  Two are in Lansing: the Moores Park Dam and the Old North Lansing dam.  Both are owned and operated by the Lansing Board of Water and Light.  Neither of them currently produce hydroelectric power.

“I do intend, in fact, because of this project to start looking at Michigan and Midwestern dams, because we want to make sure our work is relevant in the U.S.,” says Moran.  “I think in general, the regulations in the past have been better enforced in the U.S., so that the probability of having this really bad social impact has been less than overseas.  But the environmental costs are equally as severe.”

Brazil has an extensive dam system.  When finished, the Belo Monte dam will be the fourth largest hydroelectric station on Earth.  Moran feels the time is right for Brazil to consider free-floating turbines.

Moran  says there’s another benefit to dam removal.  In most cases, the  sediment that builds up behind dams makes an excellent fertilizer.  He says that could spur agriculture domestically and abroad.


“If we can figure out a way to technically move the sediment that builds up out from behind the dam and onto agricultural fields, this could enrich farming in Michigan, in the Midwest and around the world with this approach,” Moran says.

Moran says free-floating turbines could prove more adaptable than dams, and could be built to any specification.  He says even a one-megawatt turbine strategically placed in an American river could generate enough electricity to power 250 homes.



Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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