FOSTER, Ky. -- As barges of coal and grain bob through the Meldahl Lock and Dam here, construction crews are laying pipes and pumping water out of a 110-foot-deep crater that sprawls over 30 acres on the west bank of the Ohio River.
In the works is a channel that will turn the 50-year-old dam, which was built by the federal government to stabilize river flow for barge traffic, into a new source of electricity.
When the project ends in 2014, water will rush through three bulb-shaped turbines that American Municipal Power (AMP) hopes will generate electricity for the next 100 years.
Phil Meier, the power company's assistant vice president of hydro development, watched last month as a coal barge pushed against choppy waters at the lock, probably heading for a power plant that will compete with Meldahl and the three other Ohio River dams that AMP is fitting with powerhouses in a $1.7 billion push to wring every megawatt it can from the river.
"On the Ohio, there aren't any currently viable sites left," Meier said. "The remaining sites are not economical, and some have fatal flaws that would make them difficult to build at this time. AMP's projects may be the last ones built on the Ohio for some time."
Other hydropower developers and the U.S. Department of Energy hope that is not the case. They are pushing to get more electricity out of the industrial rivers in the Midwest. To supporters, the projects could help struggling rural economies and reverse the slow decline of a renewable energy source that provided 40 percent of U.S. electricity before anyone was thinking about carbon footprints and climate change.
Researchers at DOE-funded Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee recently crunched data from 54,391 dams around the country that do not already generate power. They found that outfitting thousands of them with turbines could send a total of 12,100 MW of electricity onto the grid, enough to power several million homes (E&ENews PM, April 17).
All four of the most promising dams were all on the Ohio River. After that, the next six were on one of the river's tributaries or within the Mississippi River system.
Rebuilding just two of the dams, built at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1929 to protect the easily flooded shipping towns of Paducah, Ky., and Cairo, Ill., could provide 1,000 MW of electricity. In the states west of the Rocky Mountains, where hydroelectric dams already provide a large share of electricity, not a single dam would be able to add another 100 MW.
"We don't anticipate any new large dams being built," Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Senate committee in February. But he said he sees potential at existing flood control dams, "where we don't have turbines, where it's economically feasible."
The push to develop the Ohio River is a sign of the truce between industry and environmentalists after decades of fighting over hydropower. Rather than embracing it as a relatively clean energy source, conservationists have often called for the removal of dams, hoping to restore wild rivers and let fish swim free.
But the evidence of a changing climate has led hydropower's critics to push for low-carbon electricity. And after centuries of heavy use, the Ohio River is hardly pristine, even without electrifying its dams.
When the advocacy group Environment America released its annual ranking of the most polluted rivers last month, the Ohio ranked as the dirtiest, with 32 million pounds of toxic industrial discharges in 2010.
Rupak Thapaliya, national coordinator of the Hydropower Reform Coalition in Washington, D.C., said the group accepts smaller "run of the river" projects like the ones on the Ohio, which don't change the amount of water that flows through a dam. Installing a new turbine can still hurt fish and other wildlife by heating up the water or reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen downriver, but there are often ways to avoid those problems, he said.
"If there's a dam that's already there, that's serving a useful purpose and is not likely to go away anytime soon, why not use it for another useful purpose?" he said. "They're already storing a lot of the water that should be in the river, and if the hydropower does not reduce flows additionally, then that's probably not a bad thing."
'It's bringing business'
All around the construction site here, there is sparsely populated countryside. Many houses and barns are still being rebuilt after a recent tornado, and signs tout the Federal Emergency Management Agency as men in overalls fix ravaged roofs.
People here have warmed up to the hydro project, even if a powerhouse wasn't necessarily the first item on their wish list.
For one thing, some neighbors would like to see a river crossing at Meldahl. It's a couple of miles from Foster to Chilo, Ohio, as the bird flies, but it's 12 miles upriver to a ferry and 15 more to a bridge. Crossing the state line can take an hour.
But Meldahl's hydropower will offer a new way to make a living from the river.
Jobs are needed. The unemployment rate in Bracken County, Ky., is at 11.8 percent, more than 3 percent above the state average.
Devin Claypool, a 22-year-old deckhand on an Augusta, Ky., ferry that carries cars across the river, said he has seen an increase in traffic since powerhouse construction project began. Wearing a bright orange safety vest, a tattered red baseball cap and sunglasses, he moved a pickup truck up the ramp to the ferry.
"It's bringing business to the boat, and more people," he said of the dam project.
There'll be jobs for between seven and nine people at the new Meldahl powerhouse. That is not as many employees as the coal-burning power plants in the region have, but it's still a gain.
The project is also expanding payrolls in Hannibal, Ohio, where Voith Hydro Inc. has opened a manufacturing plant to make generators for Meldahl. The dam's supply chain reaches all the way to Oregon, where Oregon Iron Works Inc. has an $18 million contract to supply equipment near Portland.
Until the powerhouse is finished, construction will also keep guest rooms full at the historic and purportedly haunted Parkview Country Inn in Augusta, 10 miles south of the dam. The inn's owners, Phil Rice, 64, and his wife Jenny, 63, say the project has softened the blow of rising gas prices and an overall tough economy, which threaten to keep tourists away from their distinctly Southern town of 1,700 people.
"The hydroelectric project is really going to be a big plus for the county as a whole," Phil Rice said, citing county tax revenue.
In good times, more visitors stop to see the two-story, Colonial-style museum along the river dedicated to Rosemary Clooney, the 1950s singer and the aunt of movie star George Clooney. There, they can ramble through rooms with photographs of a young George playing tennis or attending the prom at Augusta High.
Augusta still has its share of "Clooney watchers," who try to catch a glimpse of the actor, but he's too popular to visit his hometown these days, Jenny Rice said.
Sitting on a worn, floral sofa near the elaborate hearth in her 19th-century inn, she said she enjoys providing workers at Meldahl a "home away from home" until they move to nearby apartments, log cabins and campers.
Morton Counts, a 33-year-old construction worker, had been staying at the inn for a month since he injured his hand using a jackhammer at Meldahl. Counts, a native of Grayson, Ky., said work at the site can be loud and dangerous, and he longed to return home and play bass with his heavy metal band, Dreamcult. He said he was thankful to have a job that pays well, though.
So were the Rices. They've already had 125 visitors spread across the nine rooms of the inn through April of this year, far more than usual.
"You're looking at 10 times the number of rooms we filled," said Jenny Rice. "It's making me wash a lot more sheets."
Not Hoover Dam, but not bad
When construction wraps up, Meldahl will be the largest hydroelectric power station on the Ohio River. On a good day when the water level is high enough, but not too high, three spinning turbines will generate 105 MW of power.
Compared to the huge dams of the West, Meldahl will be downright tiny, with 1.5 percent the capacity of Grand Coulee Dam.
This isn't a fair comparison. Few dams have been as transformative as Grand Coulee, which flooded more than 21,000 acres of land in eastern Washington when it was built between 1933 and 1942. It displaced thousands of people from their homes around the Columbia River and blocked salmon from about 1,140 miles of spawning streams.
Dams like that are still being built on rivers like the Amazon in South America and the Yangtze in China, though the tolls taken on their neighbors and the environment have made them all but impossible to build in the United States today. America's new hydropower projects are much smaller.
"None of these are Hoover Dams, obviously," said Jon Guidroz, director of project development at Massachusetts-based Free Flow Power Corp., which has come up with plans to add hydropower to dozens of existing dams around the country.
Five-year-old Free Flow, like AMP, sees potential in the Midwest; it has plans for two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh. Guidroz said the goal is to break ground in February 2015 on the projects, which would produce 65 MW of electricity.
These small projects add up. Altogether, there is 80,000 MW worth of hydropower projects in the pipeline for permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said Linda Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association.
Many of the projects' developers have only started in earnest over the past few years, as the economics have been made attractive to investors by state renewable energy standards, the decision to let hydropower plants get a federal tax credit that previously was geared toward wind and solar, and the expectation that clean energy will pay off in the long run. Ciocci's group is lobbying to extend the 1.1-cent credit per kilowatt-hour of hydropower generated, which was approved by Congress in 2005 and expires at year's end.
She doesn't necessarily expect the full 80,000 MW to be built.
That is almost the total production of the United States' existing hydropower dams, which generate about 7 percent of U.S. electricity. Some will be derailed by environmental concerns or poor economics. So far, few projects besides AMP's have started construction.
Still, Ciocci said, "it's a huge insight into the industry that there is that much interest right now."
River flow times drop equals hydropower
Hydropower developers' push into the Midwest provokes a question: If the dams on the Ohio River have such potential, why did America's first big wave of hydroelectric dams pass them by?
The remaking of the river started all the way back in 1820, when Congress provided $5,000 to study ways to ease the navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Four years later, another $75,000 came from Washington, this time with directions to remove the "planters, sawyers, and snags" that were blocking boats and barges. A century later, the Ohio was where the Army Corps of Engineers built its first dams, hoping to prevent flooding and allow for easy navigation.
Hydropower was an afterthought, said Donald Jackson, a history professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and co-author of a history of American dam building. When the Army Corps built up the Ohio River's system of navigational locks in the 1930s, it was wary of electric power, only adding turbines to a couple of dams on the upper reaches of the Mississippi River.
"Overall, the corps was not interested," Jackson said.
Between 1939 and 1976, when the agency built many of these dams, the amount of goods barged down the Ohio multiplied more than 28 times over. In 2008, the river carried about 259 million tons of commodities worth about $30 billion, 58 percent of it coal, and that number is still increasing; the Army Corps predicts it will rise to 370 million tons by 2030.
The main reason hydropower skipped the Ohio during that period was geography, Jackson said. Over the 981-mile span of the Ohio River, from Pittsburgh to the confluence with the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill., the water level drops less than 6 inches per mile.
That is smooth and reliable, perfect for shipping, but without any of the major drops that the turbines of the big dam era needed.
The gorges of the mountainous West and the hill country of the Tennessee Valley had better sites for dams to back up the flow of rivers, making hydroelectric power so cheap that it overcame any political obstacles, such as resistance from the owners of competing power plants.
"Your power, in the end, is just flow times drop," Jackson said. "On the Ohio and the Mississippi, you have a really high flow, but you don't have much of a drop, and there's no place I'm aware of where you can create a large storage dam. ... They're just not amenable to anything other than a really low-head power plant, so the political factors and the traditions of the corps probably mitigated against any real serious interest in trying to develop them as multipurpose dams."
Still, the Army Corps had the foresight to build some of its dams with temporary "coffer cells" -- steel cylinders filed with sand and capped with concrete -- in anticipation that the dams might someday be expanded and electrified, Meier said. That was able to happen once the new technology in the light-bulb-shaped turbines made it easier to get electricity without a big drop.
Stephen Little, president of the Paducah barge company Crounse Corp., said he is glad the dams are finding a new use.
"What you're seeing at Meldahl is another one of the beneficiaries, and that's good," he said.
His company operates 35 towboats and 1,100 barges, which today mostly carry coal from mines to power plants. Little said he is not worried that the hydroelectric dams will compete with his customers when it comes to selling power to the electric grid.
"We don't view it as being competition or taking away from our electric utility customers, because if the economy grows and we get through this recession ... it's not a matter of picking one energy source over the other," he added. "We will need all of them. We will need hydroelectric, coal, natural gas, nuclear, conservation."
Some areas along the Ohio River that get most of their power from coal will see their energy mix transformed. The city of Hamilton, Ohio, which owns a large share of the electricity from AMP's project, will meet 70 percent of its power needs with renewable sources once the project is complete. Up and down the river, a few more workers will make a living in renewable energy.
But combined, the 10 dams that the Oak Ridge researchers deemed most promising would be able to provide about 3 gigawatts of electricity, less than 1 percent of U.S. coal-burning capacity and enough to power a few million U.S. homes. That means developers would have a hard time making existing dams more than just a boutique source of new electricity.
"In the end of the day, 3 gigawatts is a lot, but boy -- in terms of our energy demand?" Jackson said. "That saves a couple of big coal-burning plants, but it isn't going to transform the world."
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