Braddock Locks and Dam Hydropower Plant Project Off to Slow
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,”
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,”
Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at
412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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