One of the largest deployments of new hydropower generation in the U.S. is well underway and is expected to move much closer to commercial production in 2011.
Three of six run-of-river hydroelectric plants are under construction at existing dams on the Ohio River. American Municipal Power is building the projects to increase its use of renewable power and decrease its dependency on the volatile wholesale power market.
A run-of-river facility generates power from the natural flow and elevation of a river and does not require a large impoundment of water. Altogether, the six run-of-river projects will generate up to 350 MW of clean energy.
“The Ohio River dams represent a valuable, largely untapped resource of renewable power,” said Marc Gerken, president and chief executive officer of AMP. “We’re proud of these projects and glad to be starting construction on the third facility.”
In September, AMP began construction of the 72 MW Smithland project, which is expected to begin commercial production in 2014. The $400 million project will create between 200 and 400 jobs during construction.
The other five run-of-river projects are: 105 MW Meldahl, 48 MW Robert C. Byrd, 35 MW Willow Island, 84 MW Cannelton and 49.5 MW Pike Island.
Construction of Cannelton began in July 2009. Officials broke ground on Meldahl, the largest of the six projects, in May 2010. Voith Hydro will supply turbines and generators for the first four run-of-river facilities under a $420 million contract.
By the end of 2011, hydropower producers should know more about the results of new research into the design of turbines that provide safer passage for fish. Ambitious innovations in fish-friendly turbine designs are being pursued in joint efforts between industry and government.
For example, the U.S. Corps of Engineers recently awarded a $10.9 million contract to Voith Hydro for the design and manufacture of a new runner for an aging turbine at Ice Harbor Lock and Dam on the Snake River.
Engineers from Voith and the Corps will collaborate on the design process, using computer modeling and tests with physical models to evaluate water flow and pressures. The benefits of their work will extend beyond Ice Harbor, as more than two dozen turbines at dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers will need to be replaced soon, according to the Corps.
“We want to take advantage of technology that wasn’t around when the dams were constructed and design the most advanced runner available to help improve fish passage in the region,” said Witt Anderson, director of programs for the Corps’ Northwestern Division.
The contract is supported by a memorandum of understanding between the Departments of Energy and Interior to invest in clean, renewable hydropower projects with few environmental impacts.
“Our designs minimize the gaps between rotating and stationary parts where fish could get pinched,” said Mark Garner, president and chief executive officer of Voith.
Also, Alden Research Laboratory is developing a new fish-friendly turbine that could lead to significant improvements in fish survival without a loss of generation.
The Electric Power Research Institute is funding the continued development with an award from DOE. A final engineering design and report should be completed in the first quarter of 2011.
A national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) that recognizes hydropower, incentives for the development of pumped-storage plants and tax credit parity for hydropower will continue to be chief objectives of the National Hydropower Association (NHA) in 2011.
Right now, incremental hydropower receives a production tax credit of 1 cent per kWh while producers of solar, wind, and biomass receive 2 cents per kWh.
“There are some bills in Congress that work to address the issue that hydro only receives half of the credit of other technologies,” said Jeff Leahey, senior manager of government affairs for NHA. “These bills would take the existing tax structure and bump up the credit from 1 cent to 2 cents.”
There are no incentives for the development of pumped-storage plants in the U.S., a form of energy deemed important to the future development of wind and solar power. Congress may adopt an investment tax credit to support such development.
“There are a couple of bills that would provide a 20 percent credit on the cost of development,” Leahey said.
Also, the hydropower industry will be working hard in 2011 to get lawmakers on Capitol Hill to recognize hydro in a national RES. Some lawmakers contend hydro should not be used by utilities to meet the requirements of a national standard for renewable electricity because an RES is designed to support new development and hydropower plants do not require support to continue operating. What’s more, if hydro were allowed to count toward a national standard, it may discourage the development of other technologies.
“The other renewable energy industries are concerned that if all hydro was included, then you would be wiping out market share in certain areas of the country,” Leahey said. “We certainly would in the Northwest, where there is 70 percent to 80 percent hydro.”
One option calls for excluding existing hydropower capacity from an RES and including new capacity added to existing facilities, hydrokinetic power and small projects that don’t require a dam.
The U.S. has seen a decline in hydro electricity production over the last couple of decades. The industry hopes to change that not by focusing on large-scale power plants, but on smaller projects and incremental improvements to existing facilities. Hydro advocates say that an additional 30 to 70 GW could be added to the electricity mix in the next decade with such a strategy. However, the big hold-up in hydro is the long, expensive permitting process. If the federal government doesn’t streamline permitting for developers, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will come close to adding that much capacity.
Canada, the second-largest producer of hydropower in the world, is also looking to expand the sector and continue exporting electricity to the U.S. Canada gets 60 percent of its electricity from hydro. But experts estimate that there is still over 160 GW of untapped potential in the country. Provinces like Ontario and British Columbia have expressed their intent in harnessing those resources in the coming years.
Much of the innovation in hydropower will come from companies developing wave, tidal and in-stream hydrokinetic devices. These technologies could provide tens of thousands of MW to coastal areas. But progress in this sector will be fairly slow; companies are running into serious technical and financial challenges. Most of the installations in 2011 will be small commercial or demonstration-scale, not utility-sized projects.
– Stephen Lacey, RenewableEnergyWorld.com.