Hydro Headway

Scores of new hydropower projects are in some stage of development throughout North America as efforts to limit carbon emissions push utilities to seek more renewable power. Hydro Review provides a sampling of some of the activity in the U.S. and Canada.

By Russell Ray

The number of applications to build new hydropower projects in North America is on the rise amid pressure to reduce carbon emissions through the increased use of renewable resources for power production.

Many of these new projects venture far beyond the traditional concept of hydropower production from man-made reservoirs. Developers are pursuing projects that extract power from ocean waves, river currents, irrigation canals, and water pipelines. Other new projects target existing dams originally built for flood control and navigation.

Industry experts say the potential to make low-cost power from water has barely been tapped. Of the existing dams in the U.S., only 3 percent, or around 2,400, are equipped to produce electricity. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates another 30,000 MW of hydropower capacity, including 17,000 MW at existing dams, could be developed in the U.S.

A study commissioned by the National Hydropower Association (NHA) shows a greater potential for new development.

The technical potential for hydropower capacity in the U.S. is 400,000 MW, four times greater than the nation’s existing capacity of 100,000 MW, the study by Navigant Consulting shows. If the potential for new capacity is met, about 1.4 million jobs could be created by 2025, the study indicates.

“Hydro represents a vast renewable energy resource that should not be ignored,” said Jim Turner, the head of Duke Energy’s U.S. Franchised Electric and Gas business, who spoke during the keynote session at HydroVision International 2010.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the number of inquiries on issues related to the development of small hydropower nearly doubled in 2009. What’s more, DOE estimates hydropower consumption in the U.S. will rise to 2.96 quadrillion Btu by 2015, up 21 percent from 2007.

Hydro Review examined three new hydropower projects that best illustrate the types of new developments being pursued in North America in the name of clean air. They are the 196-MW Toba-Montrose Project in British Columbia, Ocean Power Technologies’ 1.5-MW Wave Park off the coast of Oregon, and a 5-MW expansion of the 2.35-MW Bowersock project on the Kansas River.


After three years of construction, Plutonic Power recently completed the $663 million Toba-Montrose run-of-river project, the largest source of privately generated renewable power in British Columbia.

But Plutonic’s plans for the Toba Valley don’t end there.

The Vancouver-based developer of independent power and its partner, GE Energy Financial Services, plan to build two more run-of-river facilities in the Upper Toba Valley, which would add another 120 MW of generating capacity under a 40-year electricity purchase agreement with BC Hydro, said Donald McInnes, chief executive officer of Plutonic Power. Transmission lines and other necessary infrastructure are already in place for the Upper Toba Valley Project, which has received its environmental assessment certificate from the province.

The 196-MW Toba-Montrose project began selling power to BC Hydro in August. The project includes a 73-MW run-of river facility on Montrose Creek and a 123-MW facility on the East Toba River. A 93-mile transmission line that connects both facilities to BC Hydro’s grid was part of the project. The power is being sold to BC Hydro under a 35-year agreement.

“Unlike traditional hydro, we haven’t built a dam and flooded the valley,” McInnes said. “We’re diverting some water flow into a pipe at a high elevation. It goes down in elevation, spins a turbine, and then we put the water back.”

The 123-MW plant on the East Toba River is the largest run-of-river facility in British Columbia.

The Toba-Montrose project, north of Vancouver, is expected to provide 726,000 megawatt-hours of clean power per year to BC Hydro customers.

“We’ve built two facilities that will generate enough electricity on an annual basis to power 75,000 homes,” McInnes said.

Contractor Peter Kiewit Sons Co. built the Toba-Montrose project and Knight Piesold was the chief engineering consultant. Together, they incorporated several unique innovations into the project, including one of the largest Coanda screen installations in the world. Norris Screen and Cook Legacy designed and built the large array of Coanda Effect screens. The 25 screens stretch nearly 200 feet across Montrose Creek.

“The weir is 200 feet in length, which makes it the largest one that we know of anywhere,” said Tim Lilly, operations manager for Norris Screen.

YOOIL Rubberdam Engineering supplied Toba-Montrose a rubberdam system that is 3.1 meters high and 28 meters long. YOOIL has designed, manufactured, and installed more than 140 rubberdam projects since 1989.

Other features of the project include a soil-restrained penstock design, which eliminates costly concrete anchor blocks, a fish-friendly tailrace design, and a large diameter Weholite high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe for low-pressure conveyance systems.

Ocean Power Technologies recently reached a settlement agreement with regulators and stakeholders to place an array of 10 PowerBuoys in a 35-acre area about 2.5 miles off the coast of Reedsport, Oregon.

“The achievement of commercial operations and sale of electricity from the two Toba Valley facilities marks a significant transformational milestone,” McInnes said.

The Toba-Montrose project is part of British Columbia’s plan to generate 93 percent of its power from clean domestic resources by 2016.

Reedsport Wave Park

By this time next year, a license to operate the first commercial scale wave-power project in the U.S. is expected to be issued to Ocean Power Technologies (OPT).

In August, the New Jersey-based wave-power company reached a settlement agreement with 11 federal and state agencies, fishermen, and tribal officials to build a 1.5-MW wave-energy park about 2.5 miles off the coast of Reedsport, Oregon. The first of 10 PowerBuoy wave energy converters will be placed in the Pacific Ocean next spring for extensive testing, said OPT Chairman George Taylor.

The agreement is the culmination of 38 months of investigation and negotiations with stakeholders. It calls for an adaptive management program that requires a series of tests designed to measure the project’s effect on ocean resources, recreation, safety and other stakeholder interests.

“If there are problems, we will make adjustments,” Taylor said in an interview. “We were thinking about putting our buoys in 40 meters of depth of water, but this was an area where they traditionally put crab pots. So we’ve gone out to between 50 and 60 meters of depth, which is outside the area they normally put their crab pots.

“These are the kinds of things we’re sensitive to,” he said. “We wanted to be good neighbors. That’s the reason for the settlement agreement.”

The conditions of the agreement will be incorporated into the license issued by FERC.

Stakeholders also are concerned about the wave park’s effect on migrating gray and humpback whales and other marine life. The adaptive management program means OPT will continue to work with the stakeholders after the project is approved by FERC to resolve any issues that might arise.

Each 200-ton buoy will have a capacity of 150 kW. Oregon Iron Works of Portland is building the first PB150 PowerBuoy, which will undergo extensive testing before the remaining nine buoys are built and installed. Commercial generation is expected to begin in 2012 after OPT receives a license from FERC and obtains additional funding, Taylor said.

Wave power “has many advantages over wind and solar,” he said. “It’s much more concentrated than wind and solar. Ultimately, it’s going to be less expensive.”

What’s more, wave power is more predictable than wind and solar, Taylor said.

“You can tell days ahead what the waves are going to be,” he said. “You can predict how much energy you’re going to be producing. You can’t do that with wind or solar.”

OPT’s PowerBuoy system is based on modular, ocean-going buoys that capture and convert predictable wave energy into low-cost electricity.

With each wave, the buoy moves up and down on a long cylinder, or spar, that is anchored with a mooring system.

“It is not fixed to the seabed,” Taylor said. “The mooring system keeps the buoy in location.”

The system can generate power with waves between 5 feet and 23 feet high. The PowerBuoy also has fiber-optic communications and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition capabilities.

“The clever part is the control system,” Taylor said. “It senses what is the amplitude and what is the period of the frequency of each wave. The sensors are telling the computer this is a three-meter wave and it has a period of 10 seconds between the next peak.”

DOE awarded $2 million to OPT in 2008 to help fund fabrication, assembly, and factory testing of the first PowerBuoy system. DOE also awarded OPT $1.5 million toward developing the next generation of the PowerBuoy with a capacity of 500 kW.

The Reedsport project, Taylor said, “will help pave the way for the U.S. to retain a technological advantage in wave power, an advantage that has been ceded to other countries that produce solar panels and wind turbines.”

Bowersock Expansion

After more than 100 years of producing power, the 2.35-MW Bowersock project on the Kansas River plans to triple its capacity with a $20 million expansion that is expected to be up and running by September 2012.

Like other expansions at existing hydropower plants, Bowersock Mills & Power Co. in Lawrence, Kan., will be adding turbine generators in a new powerhouse on the north end of Bowersock Dam. The 5-MW expansion calls for the installation of four turbine-generators.

The expansion was licensed by FERC in August, just six months after the application was submitted. Officials attributed the quick approval to FERC’s efforts to expedite the licensing process for small hydropower projects.

“The normal time frame is three to five years,” said Sarah Hill-Nelson, co-owner of the Bowersock project. “My licensing staff at FERC was excellent. He did exactly what one would hope your licensing staff would do for you.”

In addition to working with the community well before it approached regulators about an expansion, Bowersock had several advantages as it began the licensing process.

FIGURE 1. Exhibit E: View From Shore East of Plant
An artist’s rendition of the new 5-MW powerhouse Bowersock Mills & Power Co. plans to build on the north side of Bowersock Dam on the Kansas River.

“We were already certified as a low impact hydropower plant,” Hill-Nelson said. “We’re on a big Midwestern river with very few environmental issues. We’re low head, low hazard.”

In papers filed at FERC, the agency said issues of concern were adequately identified during the pre-filing period and that no new issues were likely to be indentified through additional scoping. FERC declared in April that no further scoping would be needed.

“All of the agencies involved were on board for this, so that contributed to the speedy issuance of the license,” FERC spokesman Celeste Miller said. “Also, before the licensee came in with the application, they did a lot of work on the pre-application process.”

In April, FERC officials unveiled a new licensing program designed to help applicants complete the process more quickly and efficiently. The new program was born out of discussions at FERC’s December 2009 technical conference on small, non-federal hydropower projects. The NHA said FERC’s new expedited licensing process is a “good first step” in improving the process for the developers of small hydro projects.

The Bowersock Dam was completed in 1874 and was used to provide mechanical power for several industries in Lawrence, Kan. Justin D. Bowersock, who owned a nearby grist mill, took control of the plant after a flood destroyed the dam in 1876.

“Our biggest hurdle at this point is getting together our financing,” Hill-Nelson said. “It is going pretty well so far.”

The Bowersock project is a good example of how new hydropower capacity is being developed in the U.S.

Growth, experts say, will be achieved through expansions and upgrades at existing facilities and the construction of smaller projects, not the building of large dams.

Russell Ray is senior associate editor of Hydro Review.

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