Hydropower aims for greater energy role, less environmental damage

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WASHINGTON (AP) – In southwestern Pennsylvania, eight locks and dams that for decades helped barges transport goods along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers will also generate enough electricity in a few years for 75,000 households.

Rye Development, a Boston-based hydroelectric company, is retrofitting dams with turbines to generate electricity and says the improved structures will limit damage to water quality and fish in the rivers.

The project reflects a recent thaw between industry and conservation groups, which have long opposed dams that can prevent fish migration, alter water temperatures and cause other environmental problems. As the United States strives to transition to low-carbon energy, Rye is among companies that see an opportunity to expand hydroelectric generation at existing dams while working to minimize environmental damage.

Recent trade-offs between industry and environmental groups are reflected in President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Act, which earmarks $2.5 billion for projects including removing dams as well as upgrading existing structures to protect the environment. hydropower and energy storage.

“We recognize that (hydroelectricity) is probably going to play some role in the transition. It’s definitely better than coal,” said Ted Illston of American Rivers, who advocated for the removal of dams for environmental reasons.

Hydroelectricity, which uses running water to spin turbines connected to generators, is the oldest and second largest source of renewable energy in the United States after wind power. In 2020, it accounted for around 7% of the electricity produced in the country.

The industry hasn’t received as much federal funding and tax incentives as wind and solar, but sees room for growth. Of the country’s 90,000 dams, about 2,500 produce electricity. Unpowered dams could produce enough electricity for 9 to 12 million homes, according to an estimate by the Electric Power Supply Association based on 2012 federal data.

Part of the challenge is that most dams in the United States were built over half a century ago. The risk of dam collapses has fueled demolitions in recent years, with more than 40% of the country’s nearly 2,000 dam removals over the past century occurring in the past decade. Some are also largely demolished for environmental reasons.

Last month, federal regulators moved closer to approving what would be the largest dam demolition in US history. Removing the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River near the Oregon-California border would help save the river’s salmon and other fish species that can’t reach breeding habitat because of the structures. .

The hydroelectric industry and conservation groups still clash over dams. On Maine’s Kennebec River, conservation groups and state environmental agencies are pushing for the removal of four hydroelectric dams that are preventing endangered Atlantic salmon from reaching their key habitat. The dams generate about 5% of the state’s renewable energy.

“It’s very easy for individual river systems to get lost in the message of climate change and the need for renewable energy,” said Shannon Ames, executive director of the Low Impact Hydropower Institute, which ranks hydroelectric dams based on criteria. environmental.

With persistent drought affecting hydroelectric generation west of the Mississippi River, the industry has a more direct path to expansion in eastern states.

In Pennsylvania, Rye consulted with the Low Impact Hydropower Institute early in its process and is one of a small number of companies seeking group certification.

To be certified, businesses must show that their structures meet protections for endangered species, cultural and historic uses of rivers, fish passage and recreational areas. The group says its environmental standards are often stricter than state or federal guidelines.

At a recently certified dam in West Virginia on the Ohio River, for example, dissolved oxygen levels — an important measure of the river’s water quality — met or exceeded state standards, according to a report. five-year study. In some states, dams certified by the organization are eligible for green power programs.

Rye said his dams in Pennsylvania will include structures to support fish migration and that he is building a fishing pier since federal regulators require hydroelectric producers to support recreation on river systems. The renovations should be operational from 2025.

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment

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