Micro hydro is a term used for hydroelectric power installations that typically produce up to 100 kW of power. These installations can provide power to an isolated home or small community, or are sometimes connected to electric power networks. There are many of these installations around the world, particularly in developing nations as they can provide an economical source of energy without purchase of fuel.

Micro hydro systems complement photovoltaic solar energy systems because in many areas, water flow, and thus available hydro power, is highest in the winter when solar energy is at a minimum.

Micro hydro is frequently accomplished with a pelton wheel for high head, low flow water supply. The installation is often just a small dammed pool, at the top of a waterfall, with several hundred feet of pipe leading to a small generator housing.

Construction & characteristics

Construction details of a microhydro plant are site-specific, but the common elements of all hydroelectric plants are present. A supply of water is needed — this can be a mountain stream, or a river. Usually microhydro installations do not have a dam and reservoir, relying on a minimal flow of water to be available year-round. Sometimes an existing mill-pond or other artificial reservoir is available and can be adapted for power production. An intake structure is required to screen out floating debris and fish, using a screen or array of bars to keep out large objects. In temperate climates this structure must resist ice as well. The intake may have a gate to allow the system to be dewatered for inspection and maintenance.

Water withdrawn from the source must move along a power canal or a pipe (penstock) to the turbine. If the water source and turbine are far apart, the construction of the penstock may be the largest part of the costs of construction. In mountainous areas, access to the route of the penstock may provide considerable challenges.

At the turbine, a controlling valve is installed to regulate the flow and the speed of the turbine. The turbine converts the flow and pressure of the water to mechanical energy; the water emerging from the turbine returns to the natural watercourse along a tailrace channel.

The turbine turns a generator, which is then connected to electrical loads; this might be directly connected to the power system of a single building in very small installations, or may be connected to a community distribution system for several homes or buildings.

Regulation & operation

Typically, an automatic controller operates the turbine inlet valve to maintain constant speed (and frequency) when the load changes on the generator. In a system connected to a grid with multiple sources, the turbine control ensures that power always flows out from the generator to the system. The frequency of the alternating current generated needs to match the local standard utility frequency. In some systems, if the useful load on the generator is not high enough, a load bank may be automatically connected to the generator to dissipate energy not required by the load; while this wastes energy, it may be required if its not possible to stop the water flow through the turbine.

An induction generator always operates at the grid frequency irrespective of its rotation speed; all that is necessary is to ensure that it is driven by the turbine faster than the synchronous speed so that it generates power rather than consuming it. Other types of generator require a speed control systems for frequency matching.

With the availability of modern power electronics it is often easier to operate the generator at an arbitrary frequency and feed its output through an inverter which produces output at grid frequency. Power electronics now allow the use of permanent magnet alternators that produce wild AC to be stabilised. This approach allows low speed / low head water turbines to be competitive; they can run at the best speed for extraction of energy, and the power frequency is controlled by the electronics instead of the generator.

Very small installations, a few kilowatts or smaller, may generate direct current and charge batteries for peak use times.

Turbine types used in Micro Hydro

Several different types of water turbines can be used in micro hydro installations, selection depending on the head of water, the volume of flow, and such factors as availability of local maintenance and transport of equipment to the site. For mountainous regions where a waterfall of 50 meters or more may be available, a Pelton wheel can be used. For low head installations, Francis or propeller-type turbines are used. Very low head installations of only a few meters may use propeller-type turbines in a pit. The very smallest micro hydro installations may successfully use industrial centrifugal pumps, run in reverse as prime movers; while the efficiency may not be as high as a purpose-built runner, the relatively low cost makes the projects economically feasible.

In low-head installations, maintenance and mechanism costs often become important. A low-head system moves larger amounts of water, and is more likely to encounter surface debris. For this reason a Banki turbine, a pressurized self-cleaning crossflow waterwheel, is often preferred for low-head microhydropower systems. Though less efficient, its simpler structure is less expensive than other low-head turbines of the same capacity. Since the water flows in, then out of it, it cleans itself and is less prone to jam with debris.

Two low-head schemes in England, Settle Hydro and Torrs Hydro use a reverse Archimedes' screw which is another debris-tolerant design. Other options include Gorlov, Francis and propeller turbines.

Another alternative is a large diameter, slow turning, permanent magnet, sloped open flow Kaplan turbine. A number of these have been installed at Trousy VLH, France