Local Lock-and-Dam Sites Eyed for Hydroelectric Generators

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
24 December 2011
By Andrew Conte

An Illinois-based energy company wants to install a new breed of hydroelectric generators at four nearby lock-and-dam sites in the next two years that could crank out enough electricity to power nearly 30,000 homes.

Hydro Green Energy LLC filed plans this week to install the first set of hydroelectric turbines on the Braddock Locks & Dam on the Monongahela River.

The smallest of the proposed local projects, it could produce enough energy for 2,240 homes while having little impact on the environment and no effect on river navigation, spokesman Mark Stover said.

"Every single day, water is flowing through the gates," Stover said. "When you see that rolling, turbulent water going by, that is wasted renewable energy."

Early next year, the company plans to file proposals for similar projects on the Allegheny River near Oakmont, on the Monongahela River near Morgantown, W.Va., and on the Ohio River between New Cumberland, W.Va., and Stratton, Ohio, Stover said.

Nationwide, Hydro Green is developing 28 projects in 14 states. As an independent energy producer, the company sells electricity to utility companies.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission received the Braddock application on Thursday, spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said. The agency will conduct an environmental review and seek public comment before issuing a final recommendation to its five-member board for consideration. That process could take 12 to 18 months, she said.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, also must determine the project will have no more than a negligible impact on the environment, lock operations and the physical structure of the dam, said spokesman Jeff Hawk.

Many of the corps' locks and dams need costly repairs, Hawk said. If the power plant sits on the corps' property, the agency could collect lease fees. The corps also has started looking at in-kind contracts to receive free or low-cost electricity from turbines attached to its facilities, an official said.

Hydro Green has developed a new, more efficient technology that makes it profitable to get energy from "low-head" dams in which the water drops less than 30 feet, Stover said. The company's design includes a modular steel frame with embedded turbines that attaches to the dam, but the details are so secret, the company declined to provide drawings of how the system works as it awaits approval from the U.S. Patent Office.

The company first used the technology in 2009 at a Minnesota plant that draws energy from natural river flow. The Braddock facility would be the company's first electricity generator at a dam. Hydro Green chose the Braddock site based on the dam infrastructure, its 12-foot water drop and the river flow.

The Department of Energy gave Hydro Green two grants worth $1.8 million this year to develop its turbine technology and help with installation at the Braddock site, Stover said.

Because it relies on existing structures and the corps-controlled flow of the river, the proposed generator has a low environmental impact, Stover said.

"You're not running the river hard," he said. "You're just working with the natural flow of the river."

Hydroelectric power often gets overlooked in Western Pennsylvania, said Lindsay Baxter, project manager for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, which supports the proposal in general. The nonprofit would be less likely to support a project that required building a dam.

"Pennsylvania has a lot of untapped potential for hydroelectricity," Baxter said. "It's a really clean energy source."

Hydroelectric power could be a way to produce clean energy as long as federal agencies make sure the turbines do not have significant impact on water flow or aquatic life, said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director for Clean Water Action.

"There probably are going to be some issues," he said, "but the basic concept has some value."

Four companies operate hydroelectric power plants on the Allegheny River -- all larger than the one proposed for Braddock, according to the corps' records.

Hydro Green expects to have a capacity of 3.75 megawatts of power at Braddock.

By comparison, FirstEnergy Corp. has more than 100 times as much capacity at 451.8 megawatts at the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River. Another FirstEnergy power plant at Lock & Dam No. 6 on the Allegheny near Freeport has a capacity of 8.56 megawatts.

Andrew Conte can be reached at andrewconte@tribweb.com or 412-320-7835.