Hydro power shows signs of comeback
Dec 27, 2008 - Tim Huber - The Associated Press
America's search for cleaner electricity has developers
studying dozens of government flood-control dams from
North Carolina to Oregon to see if it makes financial
sense to retrofit them with hydroelectric turbines.
The studies are part of a broader trend that has
developers looking at everything from millpond dams
in New England to locks and dams on navigable waterways
such as the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
Factors ranging from the difficulty in obtaining
permits for new coal-fired power plants to government
renewable energy mandates and tax credits have created
a potential market for new hydroelectric projects.
"You've created both the stick and the carrot," said
David Sinclair, president of Advanced Hydro Solutions.
Sinclair's Ohio-based company is focusing on four
potential hydropower projects involving government
dams in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Sinclair says government dams often lend themselves
to hydropower. Some, such as the Tygart Dam near Grafton,
were even built with hydropower in mind: the Corps
of Engineers' designed in the 1930s with twin 15-foot-diameter
tunnels. The tunnels have been capped ever since,
but Sinclair's company is studying whether it's economical
to pull the plugs, install turbines and start generating
"I could kiss the engineer that did that," Sinclair
Despite its advantages, Tygart is no sure thing for
conversion. Neither are dozens of other government
dams. The process requires years of careful planning,
chiefly to avoid disturbing a dam's original purpose
or from damaging the environment.
Developers have been trying for years to develop
the corps' Bluestone Dam near Hinton, for instance,
and have yet to get past the initial stages despite
"There's a reason that hydro isn't on a lot of these
dams right now," said John Seebach, who directs the
hydropower reform initiative for Washington, D.C.-based
environmental group American Rivers. "It was because
it just didn't make financial sense."
That's starting to change.
Developers now have a potential market for hydropower
from utilities more interested in upping the size
of their renewable energy portfolios than increasing
generating capacity, said Jeff Herholdt, director
of West Virginia's Division of Energy.
"The power ends up in our markets, but the green
credits are being sold."
As a result, West Virginia, which is far better known
for its vast coal reserves, is enjoying a bit of a
hydropower renaissance. Tygart and other projects
hold the promise of increasing the state's 264-megawatt
hydropower capacity almost 50 percent, according to
"We're certainly not talking about new dams," he
said. "Our intent is trying to making sure that, with
the dams we have, that they are being advanced. It
would look like that's happening."
That's happening elsewhere as well.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission figures show
permit applications from would-be developers of conventional
hydroelectric dams jumped to 177 last year, up from
78 in 2006. Through late November, the commission
had received another 132 applications this year.
"The FERC right now is inundated," Sinclair said.
A fair number of those permit applications involve
federal flood control dams.
FERC records list about two dozen permits for possible
hydro projects on federal flood control dams across
the country. A review by federal agencies found about
64 of 871 federal dams merited further study as potential
hydro sites, according to a 2007 report.
Combined, the agencies say they have the potential
to generate 1,230 megawatts of electricity. That's
roughly 42 percent as much as American Electric Power's
John Amos coal-fired plant produces, or enough for
a month's worth of electricity for more than 1.2 million
FERC records show dams under consideration are scattered
across the country: permits have been issued to investigate
sites in Kentucky, West Virginia, Oregon, Iowa, Texas
and California. Going from a permit to an actual hydroelectric
dam, however, is a lengthy process.
Firms like Sinclair's have to figure out how they
can add hydropower without damaging the environment
- or altering a dam's original purpose. That's a lengthy
process that can cost upward of $1 million, Sinclair
However, the process ends up with a project designed
to cause no additional harm and, perhaps, even improve
a river, said Seebach, whose group is better known
for trying to remove dams than supporting them. American
Rivers has, however, been working with the hydropower
industry on converting existing dams.
"I'm not too worried about them as a class," he said.
"They don't want to develop projects that are going
to hurt the environment."