By SUMAN NAISHADHAM – Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — In southwest Pennsylvania, eight locks and dams that for decades supported barges to move goods along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers will also generate enough electricity to power 75,000 homes in a few years.
Rye Development, a Boston-based hydroelectric company, is retrofitting the dams with turbines to generate electricity and says the improved structures will limit damage to the rivers’ water quality and fish.
The project reflects a recent thaw between industry and conservation groups who have long opposed hydroelectric dams, which can prevent fish migration, alter water temperatures and cause other environmental problems. As the US advances the transition to low-carbon energy, Rye is among the companies that see an opportunity to expand hydroelectric production at existing dams while working to minimize environmental damage.
Recent compromises between industry and environmental groups are reflected in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which provides $2.5 billion for projects including the removal of dams and the modernization of existing hydroelectric and energy storage structures.
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“We recognize that (hydro) is likely to play some role in the transition. It’s certainly better than coal,” said Ted Illston of American Rivers, who has campaigned for dam removal for environmental reasons.
Hydroelectric power, which uses running water to turn turbines connected to generators, is the oldest and second largest renewable energy source in the United States after wind power. In 2020, it accounted for around 7% of the electricity generated 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 90,000 dams in the country, 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 federal data from 2012.
Part of the challenge is that most dams in the US were built more than half a century ago. The risk of dam failures has led to demolitions in recent years, with more than 40% of the country’s nearly 2,000 levee removals over the last century taking place in the past decade. Some are also being demolished, largely for environmental reasons.
Last month, federal authorities moved one step closer to approving the largest dam demolition in US history. Removing the four hydroelectric power plants on the Klamath River near the Oregon-California border would help save the river’s salmon and other fish species, which are unable to reach breeding habitat because of the structures.
The hydropower industry and conservation groups also still fight 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 critical habitats. 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 evaluates hydroelectric dams on environmental criteria.
With the ongoing drought affecting hydroelectric production west of the Mississippi River, the industry has a more direct path to expansion into the eastern states.
In Pennsylvania, Rye consulted the Low Impact Hydropower Institute early on and is one of a small number of companies seeking certification from the group.
To be certified, companies must demonstrate that their structures meet conservation measures for endangered species, cultural and historical uses of rivers, passages for fish, and recreational areas. The group says their 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 — a key measure of the river’s water quality — met or exceeded state standards, according to a five-year study. In some states, dams certified by the organization qualify for green energy programs.
Rye said its Pennsylvania dams will include structures to support fish migration and that it is building a fishing dock because state regulators require hydroelectric producers to support recovery on river systems. The retrofits are scheduled to go into operation as early as 2025.
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