Rivers and Lakes

Hydropower by Design

Hydropower by Design is the name of an approach we use at The Nature Conservancy to describe our work to reengineer old dams, remove or avoid others and better plan for those that will occur in the future. It is an approach that looks at an entire river basin and the impacts a dam will have both upstream and downstream.

 Hydropower by Design works to:

  • avoid the most damaging hydropower dam sites and direct development toward sites that will have lower impacts;
  • minimize impacts and restore key river functions through better design and operation of individual dams; and
  • offset those impacts that cannot be avoided, minimized, or restored by investing in compensation such as protection and management of nearby rivers that provide similar benefits. 

Our recent research found that potentially more than 300,000 kilometers of river could be impacted by hydropower dam construction, but using Hydropower by Design can help reduce the negative impacts of hydropower development on rivers around the world, big or small, and leave more river free flowing. We apply data and computer modeling tools to river basins to identify scenarios where hydropower dams can be built and generate significant electricity while keeping more river undeveloped. We also speak to and work alongside community groups and leaders, as well as other organizations, to gather important on-the-ground information about specific river basins. We then provide this information and data to government agencies, hydropower companies, dam operators and hydropower financiers so they can make better, more-balanced decisions on how dams are built and operated. Our research shows that if the principles of Hydropower by Design were broadly applied during the planning of hydropower projects, potentially 100,000 kilometers of river could remain free-flowing while hydropower dams could generate significant amounts of electricity. 

We have already used this approach in several locations with success:

  • Penobscot River – We worked with a wide-range of partners in Maine to remove and redesign dams on the Penobscot River to restore historical fish passage.
  • Latin America – We are working with government officials, hydropower developers and local organizations in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico to find better hydropower dam development scenarios that leave more free-flowing rivers intact. For example, in the Tapajós River, a major tributary of the Amazon, we used computer modeling to show how hydropower energy goals could be achieved in ways that allow for thousands of kilometers of river to remain free-flowing.
  • Yangtze River, China – We worked with engineers and water managers at Three Gorges Dam in China to time water releases from the dam to address the spawning needs of carp downstream.

Learn more about our work to meet people’s growing needs for clean water and energy.