Coal might be king in the Tri-State, but an assessment for the U.S. Department of Energy has found that the Ohio River corridor is at the heart of an enormous, untapped potential for hydroelectric power.
The potential is from existing dams on the river that currently lack the capacity to generate electricity.
"Hydro, historically, hasn't gotten a lot of attention here," said Stan Pinegar, president of the Indiana Energy Association.
It is estimated that four of those dams — Newburgh; J.T. Myers, near Uniontown, Ky.; Lock & Dam 52, Brookport, Ill.; and Lock & Dam 53, Olmsted, Ill. — could generate an estimated 1,700 megawatts of renewable energy, according to the study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
"For so long there was this myth and sense that hydropower was topped out in the U.S. What this study shows is that there is tremendous opportunity still to grow," said Linda Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association.
Several projects under construction or in the early stages of development bear out the growing interest in harnessing that potential, including one being built at Cannelton, Ind., and two proposed for the Newburgh and J.T. Myers.
"It's all about diversification because that is what allows us to control costs," said Kent Carson, a spokesman for American Municipal Power, which is building the Cannelton project. "We feel it is the strongest of the renewable energy resources."
An Ohio-based nonprofit wholesaler of power to municipal electric system, American Municipal Power (AMP), is developing five hydroelectric projects on the Ohio River, including at the Cannelton Locks and Dam in Perry County and at the Smithland Locks and Dam near Metropolis, Ill.
AMP is projecting the cost of power produced by the two projects when they come online — in 2013 and 2014, respectively — will be below the market cost, Carson said. Construction on the Cannelton project is in a second phase with work on its actual powerhouse having recently begun.
Electricity from the Cannelton project could become part of the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO) — an Indiana-based regional wholesale energy market from which Vectren and other utilities in the nation's central states buy and sell power based on supply and demand.
The projects will use "run of the river" technology to take advantage of the stair-step series of locks and dams on the Ohio River operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Created for navigation and flood control purposes, the system has turned the river into a series of pools held back and regulated by dams, with locks through which barge and boat traffic passes.
Water from the higher elevated pool is diverted through a lower-elevated turbine to generate electricity and is returned downstream.
The Cannelton project will use three turbines to generate up to 88 megawatts of power, according to AMP.
Among hydroelectricity's benefits, Carson said, is its general environmental friendliness and its ability to withstand the associated regulations.
"It doesn't have some of the risks of carbon management or whatever might happen down the road with environmental regulations," he said.
However, it there is a lot of red tape involved in construction, Ciocci said.
"Hydropower is expensive to build. There are quite huge regulatory costs and huge upfront costs but you get a good return," she said. "It's proven technology. You are not taking a risk. You know it is going to work."
The same circumstances that make locks and dams on rivers ideal for hydroelectric power also contribute to one of its of shortcomings.
"Because it's using water already flowing over existing dams it can fluctuate based on the weather and river level," Carson said. "Sometimes it can be a little counterintuitive. This spring is a good example. With the flooding, the river was high on both sides of the dams."
That created a situation where there was no water dropping from one level to the next to turn the turbines for generating electricity. Dry weather can cause similar situations, decreasing the volume of available water.
Construction costs are another issue.
"Hydro tends to be a little more expensive on the front end from a per megawatt hour of generation," Carson said. "What is important to look at is what is the cost of power to the utility. Once the debt is paid, the power becomes extremely affordable."
AMP's Cannelton project alone will cost an estimated $416 million, he said.
Erik Steimle, director of compliance for Symbiotics LLC, agrees.
"It is more of a long-term investment. What makes these projects affordable is the cost of turbines is coming down."
Turbine costs have been an important expense factor in hydroelectric projects, Ciocci said.
"Every turbine is designed specifically for that project. You are not buying technology off the shelf," she said.
Steimle also said there is an assumption in the energy industry that there will be increasing incentives for "green" projects over time.
The Utah-based company specializes in retrofitting federally owned facilities — such as locks and dams — to generate hydroelectricity. It has submitted license applications to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to develop hydroelectric generation at the Newburgh and J.T. Myers locks and dams.
"There is a lot of continuous flow in the Ohio River," Steimle said.
So much so, in fact, that the top four dams currently without hydropower are those on the Ohio at Uniontown, Newburgh, Olmsted and Brookport, according to the U.S. Hydropower Assessment.
The study estimated there is a potential 12,600 megawatts of hydroelectric power waiting to be generated. That potential rests in 54,000 dams in the U.S. each capable of producing at least one or more megawatts of power. Most of those are federal facilities, including 81 of the top 100 dams with the most potential.
The study says the majority of these sites could be developed with little or no affect on wildlife habitat, parks or wilderness areas, and are in areas less than ideal for other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers' National Inventory of Dams, only 2,210 of 84,134 dams in the United States are primarily used for hydroelectric power, less than 3 percent.
While hydropower is still the nation's largest source of renewable energy, it hasn't increased significantly for several decades, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Symbiotics LLC currently operates three hydropower facilities and is building four more, including one that will begin operating in August, Steimle said. Another four are under development, including Newburgh and Uniontown.
While they are attractive opportunities, Steimle said there are still barriers to developing hydroelectric power, including access to transmission infrastructure in some areas and low natural gas prices that result in less incentive to develop new energy sources.
Regulatory processes are another hurdle. Ciocci said the licensing process can often take five to eight years. However, in March the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Corps signed an agreement to coordinate work on hydroelectric power development.
Ciocci said she believes it could take years off the licensing process. She expects more facilities to be developed in the next three years.
"Some projects are going to be pretty small. They are not all going to be large projects. This is where you may not see other renewable (energy sources) sprout up," Ciocci said.
It can help individual utilities in these areas bring renewable energy resources into their overall mix of power sources, she said, and supplement power generation sources.
"It's a great backup battery," Ciocci said.
Vectren spokesman Mike Roeder said all renewable energy sources have a place.
"We try to look at it as an all of the above situation. All these components have a place," he said.
In addition, he said, some customers want to know their energy is "green," he said.
Currently, five percent of the power Vectren supplies comes from renewable resources. That includes 80 megawatts of power purchased from a wind farm in Benton County in northern Indiana.
The utility also produces just over three megawatts of power from a facility developed by its Energy Systems Group company at a landfill owned by Veolia Environmental Services Solid Waste at Winslow, Ind., in Pike County. The landfill generates electricity by capturing gas from decomposing trash and using it as fuel to power two generators.
The Newburgh dam has the potential to produce an estimated 319 megawatts and the Uniontown dam approximately 395 megawatts, according to the Hydropower Assessment.
Steimle said Symbiotics generally develops its projects with the idea of supplying local utilities.
How the development of hydroelectric power generation sources in Indiana might ultimately affect ratepayers remains uncertain, Pinegar said.
Legislation signed into law this year allows investor-owned utilities voluntarily to participate in program creating a clean energy portfolio. Hydroelectric power sources could provide another option for utilities choosing to join in the program, he said.
The new law requires electric utilities to show the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission that participating will not cause its retail rates and charges to increase more than what would be expected if it didn't participate in the clean energy program.
That could make it difficult for utilities to recover their investment in hydropower and other clean energy sources by passing the cost on to consumers.
"The economics are big in this," Pinegar said. "The commission has to conclude that the cost is a just and reasonable burden."
The bottom line is that a utility's plan to meet a clean energy standard can't add any costs to customers' bills beyond any increases that might have been expected to occur anyway, he said.