New Development: Snapshots of Hydro Development In North America

Government encouragement of hydropower, at levels unseen since at least the 1980s, is driving new hydroelectric development in the U.S. and Canada.

It seems one measureable effect of global warming – or the fear of global warming – has been a thaw in the chilly relations between U.S. politicians and the hydroelectric industry. For the first time since the rise of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s, properly developed hydropower is being recognized in political circles as an environmentally friendly, emissions-free, domestically produced source of renewable energy.

An example is U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. In announcing $32 million in economic stimulus money for upgrades at non-federal hydroelectric projects of all sizes, Chu said: “There’s no one solution to the energy crisis, but hydropower is clearly part of the solution and represents a major opportunity to create more clean energy jobs.”

Chu’s announcement is notable because funding is not restricted to the projects that are “low-impact,” incremental, or very small.

Other recent incentives include:

– $3 billion in direct payments from the U.S. Treasury and Energy departments for companies developing renewable energy projects including hydro;

– State renewable energy programs fostering requests for renewables including hydro, from utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, PacifiCorp, Seattle City Light, and 11 Washington public utility districts; and

– $30 billion in U.S. loan guarantees for renewable energy projects including hydropower.

Much of the recent support stems from economic stimulus measures. However, some hydro incentives already were in place. Production tax credits for hydropower and other renewables, in effect since 2005, spurred developer proposals to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for hundreds of new or expanded hydroelectric projects. Many are for additions to existing dams or for hydrokinetic projects on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers, and for offshore ocean sites.

While Canada always has acknowledged the value of hydropower, it, too, launched initiatives to encourage hydro for its clean, renewable nature and for its value as an export commodity for sale to the U.S.

The government’s ecoEnergy for Renewable Power program is investing more than $1 billion to boost Canada’s supply of electricity from renewables, including small hydro and ocean energy. The ecoEnergy initiative already provides incentive payments to several hydro projects for their first ten years of operation.

Support also is evident at the provincial level, with BC Hydro’s Clean Power Call for projects including hydro in British Columbia and Ontario’s opportunities to develop hydro on government sites.

In most cases, new development in North America does not involve undeveloped, greenfield conventional sites. Because most prime hydro sites already are built, developers are looking at:

    – New hydrokinetic projects;
    – Additions of powerhouses to unpowered dams;
    – Additional generation at existing plants;
    – Replacement of existing hydro plants by larger, more efficient projects; and
    – Uprating of existing units to generate more power.


Greenfield development

Canada easily leads the way in greenfield development, spurred by such projects as the 1,550-MW four-powerhouse Romaine hydroelectric complex, now under construction on the North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec.

On a smaller scale, the Canadian government recently approved ecoEnergy incentive payments to the 7.5-MW Fitzsimmons Creek hydroelectric project in British Columbia. Project developer Innergex Renewable Energy Inc. said the payments are expected to total about C$3.3 million (US$3.04 million) over ten years.

At the 4.4-MW Mississippi Lock and Dam No. 2 project, one 100-kW hydrokinetic unit is suspended from a barge in the tailrace of the dam. (Photo courtesy Mark Stover, Hydro Green Energy)

“With this program, low-impact renewable energy developers such as Innergex can fast track their development, create new jobs, and allow the country to meet reduction targets with respect to greenhouse gas emission at a much faster pace,” Innergex President Michel Letellier said.

In June 2009 in Ontario, Ontario Power Generation launched an environmental assessment of a 100-MW project proposed for the Little Jackfish River north of Lake Nipigon. The project is to feature two dams and power plants. The provincially owned utility expects to form an ownership arrangement for Little Jackfish with the Lake Nipigon First Nations.

Similarly, in Manitoba, four Cree Nations secured economic, social, and environmental benefits as well as an ownership stake in Manitoba Hydro’s proposed 695-MW Keeyask hydroelectric project, planned for the lower Nelson River 730 kilometers north of Winnipeg.

In the U.S., a FERC official said hydro developer interest is at its highest level in more than a decade. About 10,000 MW in proposed projects are attributed to renewables tax credits, state renewables portfolio standards, and the high cost of oil.

U.S. greenfield sites are dominated by hydrokinetic proposals by such developers as Free Flow Power Corp. and Hydro Green Energy LLC. Others pursue conventional projects, such as Brookfield Renewable Power’s new affiliate, BPUS Generation Development LLC, which received preliminary permits to study more than two dozen projects, including several pumped-storage plants.

Examples of other greenfield development activity are described in the following paragraphs.

A federal appropriations bill signed by President Obama included $475,750 to fund a feasibility study of a low-head hydroelectric project on the Niagara River in New York. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is to review existing Niagara River hydropower reports to determine the efficacy of building a low-head facility.

Work to be performed at Wawaitin Generating Station consists of demolition and removal of the existing 90-year-old powerhouse and all of the associated electrical and mechanical equipment, and refurbishment of existing dam structures.

A proposal for four new hydro plants on New York City water supply reservoirs prompted competition between New York City and the original applicant for the project, Delaware County Electric Cooperative (DCEC).

DCEC had filed for a FERC preliminary permit for what it called the 63-MW Catskills Hydro project. It was bested by New York City, which subsequently proposed a 29.75-MW West of Hudson project, due to FERC’s policy of preference for municipalities in cases of competing applications.

In July 2009, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., took the city to task for balking at development of the hydro complex.

“NYC won the permit, but now admits that it does not have the desire or ability to develop these hydro facilities and has said publicly that they would like DCEC to develop the project,” a statement by Schumer’s office said. “Yet these promises have not translated into productive talks with DCEC, and there is worry that if the negotiations do not speed up, DCEC will lose a historic opportunity.”

Schumer wrote the Department of Environmental Protection, urging the city to speed up negotiations.

New York’s proposal includes powerhouses at existing earthen dams and reservoirs: 12.1-MW Cannonsville, West Branch Delaware River; 1.65-MW Neversink, Neversink River; 3.1-MW Pepacton, East Branch Delaware River; and 12.9-MW Schoharie, Schoharie Creek.

New power at existing dams

A leader in development of new hydropower plants at existing dams is Columbus, Ohio-based American Municipal Power Inc. (AMP), which held a groundbreaking ceremony in early August 2009 at the first of five Ohio River hydropower plants it has under development, the 84-MW Cannelton project at the Corps’ Cannelton Locks and Dam.

Since the 1980s, various developers have proposed building hydroelectric projects at the many Corps locks and dams on the Ohio. AMP, which has its own power customers, 128 electric cooperative systems in six states, first developed the 42-MW Belleville project on the Ohio.

The other four projects are 105-MW Meldahl, 48-MW Robert C. Byrd, 72-MW Smithland, and 35-MW Willow Island. AMP also is working with Tri-Cities Power Authority on a feasibility study for the 25.8-MW Bluestone Dam on the New River in West Virginia.

Two other Corps dams are being developed similarly on the Illinois Waterway in Illinois. Northern Illinois Hydropower LLC is preparing license applications for the 10.2-MW Brandon Road and 10.2-MW Dresden Island hydro projects at locks and dams of the same names on the Illinois River near Joliet, Ill.

In addition to various renewable energy incentives, tax credits, and carbon emission offset programs, the Illinois projects were made feasible by several decades of environmental improvements to the waterway. The waterway suffered from low dissolved oxygen, waste discharges from the Chicago sanitary waste system and industries, and sediment contamination.

In addition to Hydro Green Energy’s greenfield project filings, the hydrokinetic developer proposed, and completed, installation of a hydrokinetic power project at the city of Hastings’ conventional 4.4-MW Mississippi Lock and Dam No. 2 project in Minnesota.

FERC amended Hastings’ hydro license, allowing installation of two 100-kW hydrokinetic units based on the patented technology of Hydro Green Energy, a partner in the hydrokinetic project. The units are suspended from a barge in the tailrace of the Corps’ Lock and Dam No. 2, about 20 miles south of Minneapolis.

Dubbed the city’s “big science experiment,” the Hydro Green installation now is considered the U.S.’s first commercial hydrokinetic power project, expected to generate 364 megawatt-hours (MWh) annually.

Powerhouse replacement

In some instances, hydropower operators have found it necessary to demolish older hydro facilities and replace them with larger, modern, more efficient powerhouses to utilize more fully an existing hydropower resource.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) completed financing of a C$200 million (US$182 million) bond issue to fund redevelopment of four projects on Ontario’s Upper Mattagami and Lower Montreal rivers. Construction is to be completed by December 2010, increasing total capacity more than 22 MW, to 44.5 MW from 22.3 MW.

OPG said redevelopment would increase capacity of the three Upper Mattagami River projects: 10.4-MW Wawaitin, to 15 MW; 3-MW Sandy Falls, to 5.5 MW; and 5.3-MW Lower Sturgeon, to 14 MW. Annual energy production would increase to 180 gigawatt-hours (GWh) from 108 GWh. The utility plans to decommission and remove the three powerhouses, penstocks, and surge tanks; construct new powerhouses; install equipment; and refurbish dams, weirs, and other civil structures.

For the 3.6-MW Hound Chute development on the Lower Montreal River, the utility plans to build a 10-MW replacement powerhouse and install a weir that would eliminate most water fluctuations. That is expected to increase annual generation to 47 GWh from 26 GWh.

British Columbia utility BC Hydro recently completed redevelopment of the 5-MW Aberfeldie project, replacing it with a 24-MW plant on the Bull River east of Cranbrook, B.C. That C$95 million (US$82.9 million) redevelopment included construction of the 24-MW powerhouse next to the 5-MW powerhouse, which was targeted for removal. The project also included a new surge tower and switchyard; a new penstock; and improvements to a water intake, dam, and access road.

BC Hydro included the Aberfeldie redevelopment in its 2008 plan to spend C$3.4 billion (US$2.9 billion) over two years to renew and upgrade its hydro projects and electricity infrastructure.

Uprating, refurbishment

In the area of upgrades that increase capacity, FERC approved plans by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to make $250 million in improvements to the Snoqualmie Falls hydroelectric project, adding 10 MW to bring the historic project to the full 54.4 MW authorized by its 2004 relicensing.

A FERC license amendment allowed construction to ramp up in September 2009 on upgrades to generating infrastructure at the 111-year-old project 30 miles east of Seattle. The work is to be complete in 2014.

Work includes replacement of a generator in Plant 2 and replacement of a generator and retrofitting of four 1898-vintage generators in Plant 1, increasing generating capacity by 10 MW. PSE also plans to replace intake structures, upgrade penstocks, install turbine bypass valves, and install automatic shutoff gates above Plant 2.

In a bid for federal production tax credits, hydropower operator TransCanada asked FERC to certify efficiency improvements at its 140.4-MW Comerford hydroelectric plant in New Hampshire as eligible for the credits. FERC has certified incremental generation for more than three dozen hydro projects since August 2005.

TransCanada sought certification of incremental gains in generation resulting from replacement of its Unit 1 turbine runner at Comerford, one of three developments in the 291.36-MW Fifteen Mile Falls project on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and Vermont. In August 2009, FERC certified that installation of the new Unit 1 runner resulted in an average annual generation increase of 18,009 MWh, representing a 2.51 percent increase in generation at Comerford. FERC certified a historic generation baseline of 715,938 MWh for the project, compared to generation with improvements of 733,947 MWh. 

John Braden, contributor to Hydro Review, has been reporting and writing about hydroelectric power for more than 20 years. 

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