J500 Media and the Environment

Part 1: Don’t wait for god to dam it. by Lauren Keith

Coal-fired power plants used to be the symbol of growth and progress, but people have now woken up to the true cost of coal.
Photo by Bruno D Rodrigues, flickr.com

Damn, America has found itself in quite the energy crisis.

The price of oil is burning a hole in our pockets and in the atmosphere. We are wary of General Electric’s standing as one of the top wind turbine manufacturers because of the company’s lax air and water pollution policies. The environmental crappiness of coal power has finally been exposed. What now?

Look no further than one of our favorite swear words: dam.

Dams are no stranger to the American landscape, but for the most part, we just leave it to the beaver.
Hydroelectric plants account for about 20 percent of the world’s electricity supply, giving more than 1 billion people power. All of the world’s hydroelectric dams put out a combined 715,000 megawatts, which is the same as saving 3.6 billion barrels of oil, according to the Renewable Energy Policy Network (PDF).

More than 2,000 hydropower plants are currently operating in the United States, making hydroelectricity our country’s most used renewable energy resource.

To learn how electricity is produced from running water, take a step back to elementary school. It’s that dam simple.

Flowing water has potential energy, which is stored until it can be converted into kinetic energy, or the energy of motion. Water coming into the plant drives a circular turbine and a generator, which change the water’s potential energy into a useable form. The amount of energy taken from the water varies. It depends on how much water is coming through the turbines and the height difference between the incoming water and the height that it leaves the plant. For a more in-depth look, see How Stuff Works.

Not all dams are environmentally friendly, but some meet certain standards that minimize their effects on wildlife. These dams are certified low-impact by a voluntary program. Some states require hydroelectric projects to be low-impact certified to qualify as renewable energy. More than 20 hydropower dams have this certification, including the only facility in Kansas.

With low-impact hydropower, one city in Kansas has made some dam changes.

—Lauren Keith

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