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Micro Hydro

Micro Hydro Power in the Nineties

Paul Cunningham & Barbara Atkinson ©1994 Paul Cunningham and Barbara Atkinson

Micro hydro power was once the world’s prominent source of mechanical power for

manufacturing. Micro hydro is making a comeback for electricity generation in homes. Increasing numbers of small hydro systems are being installed in remote sites in North America. There’s also a growing market for micro hydro electricity in developing countries. This article is a technical over-view.

Micro hydro power is gradually assuming the decentralized form it once had. Water power predates the use of electricity. At one time hydro power was employed on many sites in Europe and North America. It was primarily used to grind grain where water had a vertical drop of more than a few feet and sufficient flow. Less common, but of no less importance, was the use of hydro to provide shaft power for textile plants, sawmills and other manufacturing operations.

Over time thousands of small mills were replaced by centrally-generated electric power. Many major hydroelectric projects were developed using large dams, generating several megaWatts of power. In many areas, hydro electric power is still used on a small scale and is arguably the most cost-effective form of energy.

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are being scaled up from residential to electric utility size. In contrast, hydro power is being scaled down to residential size. The small machines are similar in most ways to the large ones except for their scale.


A hydro system is much more site-specific than a wind or photovoltaic (PV — solar electric) system. A sufficient quantity of falling water must be available. The vertical distance the water falls is called head and is usually measured in feet, meters, or units of pressure. The quantity of water is called flow and is

measured in gallons per minute (gpm), cubic feet per second (cfs), or liters per second (l/s). More head is usually better because the system uses less water and the equipment can be smaller. The turbine also runs at a higher speed. At very high heads, pipe pressure ratings and pipe joint integrity become problematic. Since power is the product of head and flow, more flow is required at lower head to generate the same power level. More flow is better, even if not all of it is used, since more water can remain in the stream for environmental benefits.

A simple equation estimates output power for a system with 53% efficiency, which is representative of most micro hydro systems:

Net Head* (feet) x Flow (US gpm) / 10 = Output (Watts)

* Net head is the pressure available after subtracting losses from pipe friction. Most hydro systems are limited in output capacity by stream conditions. That is, they cannot be expanded indefinitely like a wind or PV system. This means that the sizing procedure may be based on site conditions rather than power needs. The size and/or type of system components may vary greatly from site to site. System capacity may be dictated by specific circumstances (e.g. water dries up in the summer). If insufficient potential is available to generate the power necessary to operate the average load, you must use appliances that are more energy- efficient and/or add other forms of generation equipment to the system. Hybrid wind/PV/hydro systems are very successful and the energy sources complement each other.

The systems described here are called “run of river”; i.e. water not stored behind a dam (see HP#8). Only an impoundment of sufficient size to direct the water into the pipeline is required. Power is generated at a constant rate; if not used, it is stored in batteries or sent to a shunt load. Therefore, there is little environmental impact since minimal water is used. There is also much less regulatory complication.

System Types

If electric heating loads are excluded, 300-400 Watts of continuous output can power a typical North American house. This includes a refrigerator/freezer, washing machine, lights, entertainment and communication equipment, all of standard efficiency. With energy- efficient appliances and lights and careful use management, it is possible to reduce the average demand to about 200 Watts continuous.

Power can be supplied by a micro hydro system in two ways. In a battery-based system, power is generated at a level equal to the average demand and stored in

24 Home Power #44 • December 1994 / January 1995

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