Back to the Future: Interest in Hydropower Surges On The Three Rivers

Americans have been harnessing moving water for electricity since the late 19th century. But some in the industry say a new, greener generation of hydropower is emerging. And interest is spreading up and down the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray has more.

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OPEN: Americans have been harnessing moving water for electricity since the late 19th century. But some in the industry say a new, greener generation of hydropower is emerging. And interest is spreading up and down the Allegheny, Ohio and the Monongahela rivers. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray has more.

MURRAY: Linda Church Ciocci is the director of the National Hydropower Association. She wants to clear up a big misconception about hydroelectric projects in the United States.

CHURCH CIOCCI: When I speak I often tell people to get the concept of the Hoover Dam out of their heads.

OLD NEWS REEL: By June 1934, Hoover Dam had risen to an impressive height, already taking its place among one of the world's wonders.

MURRAY:† Ciocci says that compared to the mighty Hoover, most American hydro projects are a drop in the bucket. Today, these smaller facilities and a few big plants crank out about seven percent of our electricity. That's a fraction of the energy that water supplied until the late 1940's. But Doug Hall believes the hydro industry is gearing up for a comeback. Hall, who manages the water energy program at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Lab, says the infrastructure is already in place.

HALL: I think it's pretty well recognized that existing dams are the low hanging fruit of hydropower development.

MURRAY: Existing dams are enticing to developers because there are so many of them. †Of the 79,000 dams in the United States, only 2400 dams have hydroelectric plants. That means hydro plants can be built or expanded without putting up new dams and flooding more land. All at a time when the world is thinking about clean energy.

HALL: In the present climate that we're in, we're talking about a totally non-emitting energy source so if we're concerned about climate change there just are no emissions from an hydroelectric plant.

MURRAY: Power companies are already upgrading generators in dams in Idaho, Kentucky, and California, among other places. Jeff Benedict with the Pittsburgh District of the Army Corps of Engineers, says there's interest in retrofitting dams for hydro up and down the three rivers.

BENEDICT: I can tell you that every facility that doesn't have a power facility with the exception of one are currently being studied by private developers. Five available locks on the Ohio River are being studied. Four on the Allegheny River and a total of eight on the Mon River.

NAT SOUND: opening metal gate at lock #5
MURRAY Today, Benedict is visiting Lock Five on the Allegheny.

BENEDICT: We have hydropower on the opposite side of the river.

MURRAY: He points to a small power plant the size of a double car garage. †It's one of five hydro facilities that have been†on the Allegheny and Ohio since the late 1980's. This power station removed about 200 feet of the dam. An intake structure guides the water into two turbines. The turbines turn generators that†make electricity.

ANN: Is this pretty typical of what could be happening elsewhere on the rivers?

JEFF: Absolutely. Absolutely.† I believe the projects will look pretty similar to this one. If you have them up and down the river, you might easily be getting a cumulative total of 50 to 100 megawatts and you're talking some significant energy.

MURRAY: And that's just the potential hydro output on the Allegheny River.† The number climbs to about 400 extra megawatts if all the projects on the three rivers would be built. According to the National Hydropower Association, that's enough energy to power about 166 thousand homes.† Energy aside, the Army Corps of Engineers, has to make sure that new hydro stations don't interfere with the flow of the rivers. That means that proposed plants couldn't divert water when the rivers are low. Army Corps biologist Rose Reilly says water quality could also be an issue with additional hydro projects. She throws out the Allegheny River as an example.

REILLY: Since the river is divided into multiple small lakes, the aeration in each of those lakes comes from the existing dam. So the dams re-aerate the water. If we put in hydropower, the water that goes through the turbines doesn't re-aerate so you lose the re-aeration capacity of the dam with hydropower.

MURRAY: Reilly says aquatic animals and plants wouldn't get as much oxygen and the river wouldn't be able to deal as effectively with pollution. Besides that, fish could get sucked into turbines and chopped up.†

ANN: A: Are you concerned as a biologist?
ROSE: As a biologist definitely I'm concerned.

MURRAY: The hydro industry says it's made strides in dealing with fish kills and water quality problems like loss of dissolved oxygen. Dave Boyter is with Symbiotics Energy, one of the companies investigating the potential for hydroelectric plants in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He says new technology and a long permitting process make this generation of hydropower greener.

BOYTER: When we look at the issues, both technically and as a group, we can usually identify what we can do to improve the area and make a truly environmental benefit.

MURRAY: To make these projects environmentally friendly and affordable, Boyter says the industry is looking for long term tax credits. Right now, federal subsidies are doled out a year at a time. Boyter and other developers hope the new Obama administration will keep campaign promises about funding renewable energy projects. The state of Pennsylvania already requires that utilities step up their use alternative energy sources including hydro.†


In the meantime, Jeff Benedict with the Army Corps of Engineers has a gut feeling that at least some of the proposed plants on the three rivers will happen. Two projects are already in the first stage of a licensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.† Under the right circumstances, Benedict says more hydropower will be a good thing.

BENEDICT: Presuming that it can be installed safely and the environmental impacts are acceptable, it's great that we can get some additional use from our infrastructure.

MURRAY: For The Allegheny Front, this is Ann Murray.