Braddock Locks and Dam Hydropower Plant Project Off to Slow Start

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review 
15 October 2015
By Tory N. Parrish

A Dallas-based startup is moving ahead with a plan to become the first company to operate a hydropower plant in Allegheny County, but don't expect a heavy flow of followers just yet.

Despite a federal push to generate more electricity from water, especially at existing structures such as the Braddock Locks and Dam on the Monongahela River, expansion has been slow.

“It is more economically feasible right now to build generators that burn off natural gas … than to build hydro,” said Penn State University mechanical engineering professor John M. Cimbala, who was the principal investigator on a $3 million project between the school and the Department of Energy to train graduate students in hydropower research and development.

Eight proposed Pennsylvania hydropower projects pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which grants licenses, would total about 120 megawatts of capacity — less than 5 percent of the power of the state's largest coal and nuclear plants. Nationally, hydropower supplies about 7 percent of electricity.

“Hydropower plants pay themselves off eventually, but it's a big up-front investment. It's hard to justify right now with the cost of natural gas,” Cimbala said.

Licensing delays can make the decision to invest even tougher, said LeRoy Coleman, spokesman for the National Hydropower Association in Washington.

Dallas-based Hydro Green Energy got its license in July to build a 5.25-megawatt, low-impact hydroelectric plant on the Braddock dam, for which it applied in 2011. The company expects the $15.7 million construction project to last a year starting next July.

“(In) Pennsylvania, with its rivers and hills, there's tremendous opportunity, not just in Braddock but in other locations around Pittsburgh,” said Mike Maley, Hydro Green's president and CEO.

The plant, running on technology patented by Hydro Green, will generate enough electricity to power about 5,250 homes, but the power might not be used for that purpose, Maley said. He has an agreement with an entity to buy the power but won't disclose the buyer until a contract is signed.

Adding hydropower to non-powered dams such as Braddock could generate up to 12 gigawatts of power, according to the Energy Department, which gave Hydro Green a $1.8 million grant to develop its technology. The company received a $4 million grant from the state Alternative and Clean Energy Program and a $500,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority, through the Department of Environmental Protection.

The Department of Energy is promoting development of small hydropower at existing, unpowered dams, especially those owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, because it is cheaper and has less impact on wildlife and the environment than new dams.

In June 2014, Congress passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which is supposed to expedite the corps' review of permit applications for hydropower plants at its dams. Developers are waiting for the corps to issue guidance for its permits, the National Hydropower Association said.

A 2012 department report listed 597 non-powered dams in the United States where hydropower facilities could be developed. Forty-five of those sites were in Pennsylvania.

Since the report was issued, two hydropower plants, including Braddock, have received FERC licenses.

The corps, the largest hydropower producer in the country, has 75 federally run hydro plants on its 700 dams, producing about 21,000 megawatts of power, said Kamau Sadiki, national hydropower business line manager. There are another 59 nonfederal hydropower plants, owned by counties, municipal governments and private companies, at the corps dams, he said.

About one-third of the agency's remaining dams are feasible sites for hydropower development, he said.

“We want to see more renewable energy online. We want to reduce the carbon footprint, and so it's a good thing for the corps,” Sadiki said.

But the low price of natural gas has put a damper on many hydropower plans, and it doesn't look like that will change anytime soon, Cimbala said.

Santa Monica, Calif.-based U.S. Renewables Group's Boston company, Rye Development, has FERC permits to study building small hydropower facilities at existing dams in the corps' Pittsburgh District, but it needs licenses before any work could begin, said Don Lauzon, vice president of regulatory affairs for the company.

It applied for the licenses under the name Free Flow Power in February and March 2014, but the regulatory requirements make the process long, Lauzon said.

“That causes an additional time because it's additional coordination for us as developers, which makes the process a little bit more ... complicated for a coordination perspective,” Lauzon said.

Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or

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