"Every single day, water is flowing through the gates. When you see that rolling, turbulent water going by, that is wasted renewable energy," according to Mark Stover of Hydro Green Energy. Unfortunately, he is correct. According to the U.S. Department of Energy ten dams along the Iowa portion of the Mississippi River and two on the Des Moines River could be retrofitted with hydroelectric turbines having a potential capacity of 680 megawatts. These turbines could produce enough electricity to power about 20 percent of the homes in Iowa, with low-cost completely renewable energy.
This does not include electricity which could be generated at even smaller dams, small-scale "run-of-the-river" facilities using only daily water flow. A small-scale hydroelectric power plant generally has a capacity of less than 15 megawatts and/or a dam height of less than 65 feet. Unfortunately, no new licenses have been issued in Iowa by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) since 2010.
The Nashua Mill Dam and Powerhouse, operational in May of 2012 are an excellent example of both the problems and success of retrofitting a smaller dam for electricity generation. The city began the process in 2006, with the final license and approval over six years later, after "monstrous amounts of paperwork," according to Nashua Mayor John Phyfe. Construction only took about a year and a half and cost approximately $2.6 million. It is single turbine, capable of generating just under four million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, in a fully automated run-of-the-river mode, enough power for about 360 homes. Currently the electricity is primarily used for city facilities, with extra power sold back to the grid at 4.5 cents/kWh, and renewable energy incentives of 2.8 cents/kWh. The tax incentive is the same one used by the wind industry.
Not only is this fully renewable energy, but it is inexpensive. The FERC analysis of the project costs showed that in the first year alone there would be a savings of over $78,000 to the city, compared to outside power. The positive cash flow will be almost $241,000 a year, once the bonds are paid off, with an expected life of another 30 years after that. As a result the city will have both significant positive cash flow and their own power, for the next 50 plus years.
Environmental concerns about hydroelectric power include water temperature and oxygen levels for fish. Power lines must not harm migratory birds. The tiny Indiana bat, generally indistinguishable from the common Brown bat, required special consideration. Plants of concern were the Western prairie orchid and prairie bush clover, though not found on site.
The Nashua Powerhouse is one example of reliable, inexpensive power and energy independence and how the regulatory process delays its use and drives up the cost. Fortunately many environmental groups previously arguing for the complete removal of dams and returning rivers to their "wild" state where fish can "swim free" are now recognizing that it makes both environmental and economic sense to use the energy potential at dams which are already in place. The Hydropower Reform Coalition recently agreed that if a dam "is not likely to go away anytime soon, why not use it for another useful purpose?"
If we are concerned about renewable energy we must insist that FERC reduce onerous regulations and support hydroelectric power. Though not flashy, it is fundamentally a better, more reliable, more cost-effective, and controllable energy. For a federal bureaucracy to delay implementation of this important power source is both batty and fishy.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better informed citizenry.
Deborah D. Thornton is a research analyst at the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.