AMP breaks ground on Ohio River hydro plant

Off the banks of the Ohio River near the small Kentucky town of Hawesville, a crane and its giant metal claw are busy placing several tons of rocks and boulders on the river bottom.

The cofferdam construction marks the beginning of what will be one of the largest deployments of new hydropower generation in the U.S. Federal, state, and local officials, including Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, gathered here Aug. 5, 2009, to break ground on American Municipal Power’s (AMP) hydroelectric plant at the Cannelton Locks and Dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the locks and dam.

The 84-MW project is the first of five run-of-the-river hydro plants AMP plans to build on the Ohio River. All together, the five plants will be able to generate more than 350 MW of renewable power. (HydroWorld 7/24/09)

“What a valuable and huge asset that river is for the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Beshear said. “It can play such a huge role in the development of all our counties and cities lying along.”

The $416 million Cannelton project will be completed in 2013 and employ 200 to 400 people during construction. York, Pa.-based Voith Hydro is providing the turbines and generators for the project, and MWH is providing design and engineering services. 

Mark Gerken, AMP’s chief executive officer, touted the benefits of hydropower, saying it is more reliable and affordable than other forms of renewable energy. What’s more, hydro plants run at 65 percent capacity on average, well above the 25 percent average for wind and 10 percent average for solar, Gerken said during the formal groundbreaking ceremony.

“This is why this is just the first of five hydroelectric projects,” he said. “Our goal is to provide a balanced and responsible power supply portfolio for our members — a portfolio that will allow them to have 23 percent of their power come from renewable resources (by 2015).”

AMP provides power to 128 electric systems serving more than 570,000 customers in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, and West Virginia.

“In this part of the country, it is clear that hydroelectric generation is superior to other renewable technologies,” Gerken said. “The ability to schedule this energy predictably a day ahead is superior to wind and solar as well.”

AMP already operates a 42-MW hydro plant on the Ohio River near Belleville, W.Va.

The other four AMP projects are: 105-MW Meldahl (No. 12667); 48-MW Robert C. Byrd (No. 12796); 72-MW Smithland (No. 6641); and 35-MW Willow Island (No. 6902). 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.

“Here in the Midwest, if you’re talking alternate energy sources, hydro is going to fit into that mix,” said AMP Chairman John Bisher. “Our goal is to produce the most reliable power at the lowest possible cost.”

The five Ohio River hydro projects planned by AMP shows that there are plenty of opportunities to increase hydropower capacity in the U.S., said Linda Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association.

“The biggest challenge we have is the myth that we’re tapped out,” Ciocci said. “There are a lot of people who generally feel that we can’t build anymore hydro in this country because all the best sites are taken.”

The industry estimates it could double U.S. hydropower production by 2030.

“But that’s only going to happen if they start changing some of the policies in Washington,” Ciocci said. “We need a more expedited licensing process for projects like pumped storage. Pumped storage is really key to our future.”

Ciocci said America is on the verge of a hydropower renaissance, as utilities prepare to meet new regulations designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas scientists have linked to global warming.

Congress has recognized hydropower in new legislation requiring utilities to produce a certain amount of their power from renewable resources, Ciocci said.

“I think there is, as we move forward, a real understanding of the value these projects bring,” she said.

Hydropower accounts for 6 percent of the nation’s electricity consumption and nearly 75 percent of all renewable power, according to the Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.

But just 3 percent of the nation’s more than 82,000 dams generate electricity.

Utility executives are taking a hard look at hydropower as Congress considers legislation establishing limits on carbon emissions and requirements for the production of renewable power, Ciocci said.

“It’s one of the best options we have in front of us as a nation right now,” Ciocci said.

Ciocci pointed to Waterpower XVI, the conference and trade show held July 27-30 in Spokane, Wash. More than 2,100 delegates attended this year’s show, an all-time high.

“There’s a real buzz going on in the industry right now,” Ciocci said.

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