Free Flow Power seeks approval for hydropower plants on Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers

If Boston-based energy company Free Flow Power has its way, 10 of the Pittsburgh region’s locks and dams will share space across the river with hydropower plants.

The company is meeting with Pennsylvania regulators on the heels of filing final licensing applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission between late February and early March. The applications are in a 30-day public comment period, according to FERC.

Free Flow Power is considering a cluster of 10 sites in the Pittsburgh region: one on the Allegheny River, six on the Monongahela, and three on the Ohio near existing locks and dams operated by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Tom Feldman, vice president of project development for Free Flow, said while each facility would generate a relatively small amount of electricity — the largest is proposed for a site in Beaver County at 42 megawatts — the plants combined would create about 148 megawatts for the region at an investment of about $380 million.

“This entire cluster could provide annual electricity needs for about 65,000 homes,” Mr. Feldman said. “In aggregate, it will add a nice chunk of power to the energy mix.”

If approved, the plants — each of which is permitted separately — could be up and running in 2018.

“It’s an opportunity to provide low-cost renewable energy for several generations,” said Mr. Feldman.

A portion of the electricity generated would go to operating the lock and dam itself, according to the Army Corps. The rest would go to the regional power grid, PJM Interconnection.

Two major factors in determining locations are “flow,” the amount of water traveling over the spillway, and “head,” the height differential between the upper pool above the dam and the lower pool, Mr. Feldman said.

Another factor is whether there’s an opportunity to build more than one facility in the area.

“When we saw there was a chance to look at six potential sites on the Monongahela, we jumped at the opportunity,” Mr. Feldman said. “We try to time the development so these clusters would come online around the same time.”

Still, it’s early in what can be a very long and costly approval process.

“The hydropower development process takes about seven years from concept to commercial operations," Mr. Feldman said. "We’re about half way through that at three and a half years.”

The first three years were spent studying the feasibility, impact on aquatic life and water quality, as well as talking with stakeholders: communities, the Army Corps and state officials.

In a region famous for its rivers, it’s no surprise that energy companies would look for ways to pull energy from the water. Today, nine such plants are operating — five on locks and dams and four on reservoirs — in the Army Corps’ jurisdiction, including the Kinzua Dam along the Allegheny River near Warren, Jeff Benedict, hydropower project manager for the corps, said.

Still, interest has risen and fallen over the years, and many proposals stalled before they could get their feet wet.

In the 1980s, for instance, there was a surge of companies that sought and obtained licenses to build hydropower facilities. Then there was a lull, Mr. Benedict said.

Jeff Hawk, a spokesman for the corps, said the organization welcomes hydropower.

“Our interest is in what impact it will have on operations, navigation, the structural integrity of our facilities and the environment,” Mr. Hawk said.

In addition to the impact on aquatic life, water quality and existing commercial uses of the river system, there is another concern: demand for water.

“For some of these hydro plants, there is a competition for water,” said Jim McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, which advocates commercial use of southwestern Pennsylvania’s waterways.

“Some divert water to the plant at the expense of navigation in dry seasons. However, Free Flow has assured us that they would not divert water during low periods.”

Free Flow said it will take the flows normally available to generate its electricity, and will not pool additional water.

“We wanted to understand whether we could make this economic with the Army Corps’ cooperation, and we feel there’s a path forward based on the studies we’ve done,” Mr. Feldman said.

Stephanie Ritenbaugh: or 412-263-4910

First Published April 1, 2014 5:34 AM

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