A Powerful Urge Exists to Tap Rivers for Energy
17 November 2013
By Brian O'Neill
In this city defined by its three rivers, each one punctuated by
dams, you'd think Pittsburgh long ago would have figured a way to
get some juice from the flow.
Both the city and Allegheny County were licensed to generate
hydroelectric power from existing dams on the Allegheny and Ohio
rivers in the 1980s. Bundles of tax dollars were spent on plans
and license fees. All that money was essentially flushed down the
river. Nothing was built.
Now comes a Boston company, Free Flow Power, to tap into this
neglected resource. It's been looking at our rivers for almost
three years and claims to have spent $4 million conducting
environmental and engineering studies, using Western Pennsylvania
companies. The goal is the generation of electrical power from as
many as 10 existing dams from Beaver County to Morgantown, W.Va.,
within the next five years.
We may be talking about only a drop in the energy bucket. The dams
would average less than 15 megawatts apiece, and each megawatt can
power hundreds, not thousands, of homes. That may not seem like
much of a jolt in the midst of the Marcellus Shale natural gas
boom, whose boosters claim, "If the Marcellus were a country it
would rank fifth in world gas production -- ahead of Qatar.''
Yet harnessing energy from the water has a compelling purity. That
water would flow over the dams in the same way it does now. The
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains them, will not make
any additional releases to provide hydropower. Free Flow Power can
only use what slops over. The corps will continue making its dam
decisions based on its missions of maintaining navigable
waterways, mitigating floods and so on.
"They're using flows we'd use anyway,'' corps spokesman Jeff
Benedict said of the proposals.
The corps can operate the dams the same way, whether or not
there's a concrete powerhouse at the opposite end from the locks.
The only difference would be that the electricity to operate the
dam would be paid for by Free Flow Power, a welcome dividend for a
strapped federal government.
Tom Feldman, vice president of project development for Free Flow
Power, met me Friday morning before he was to make a presentation
to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. I'd wondered how, with
Marcellus gas putting a dent in coal and nuclear power plans, a
new player could enter the energy field
"There's always going to be a place for hydropower,'' Mr. Feldman
Indeed, four hydropower operations are on the upper Allegheny
River already, though the closest is in Schenley, Armstrong
County. Uncle Sam would like to see more.
Congress passed a bill, signed by President Barack Obama last
summer, that streamlines the regulatory process for hydro, "the
largest source of clean, renewable electricity in the United
States.'' But navigating the federal agencies is still trickier
than getting a coal barge up and down the rivers. Mr. Feldman all
but beamed when he said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
had received FFP's license application last month after nearly
three years of studying the feasibility of hydro power on our
For George Tkach, that's bittersweet news. Twenty-five years ago,
Mr. Tkach was in the Allegheny County administration that looked
into hydropower. Fifteen years ago, as mayor of Rankin, he offered
this newspaper his four top desires for Pittsburgh: a riverfront
development district; a bike trail to Washington, D.C.; the naming
of Allegheny River bridges in honor of prominent Pittsburghers;
and hydropower on the rivers.
You could say he's four-for-four, but he wanted the governments to
reap the hydro revenue so they could use it to finance the massive
job of modernizing the storm sewers, so "the rivers could actually
clean themselves up,'' as he put it.
I drove Mr. Tkach to Allegheny Lock and Dam No. 2, just downriver
from the Highland Park Bridge, where the city once had a license
to build a power plant. It's in FFP's plans now. Pittsburgh Water
and Sewer Authority officials have been in touch with Free Flow
Power, but the PWSA would be a potential customer, not the
"If nothing else,'' Mr. Tkach said, "it's going to reduce the
dependency on fossil fuel."
Go with the flow, Mr. Tkach. This beats letting all that dam power
go to waste.