EVANSVILLE — Renewable energy and natural gas will supply what new electric generating capacity is expected to come online this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
But while renewable energy is forecast to supply more than half of that new power, one notable source is largely absent from the discussion: hydropower.
Wind and solar energy will play prominently in 2019, according to the federal report. However, it's hydropower that is the largest source of renewable power in the United States, making up about 7 percent of all electricity generated, according to the EIA.
Two Tri-State dams, Newburgh and John T. Myers at Uniontown, Kentucky, top the Department of Energy's list for untapped hydropower potential, with a combined capacity to produce an estimated 700 megawatts.
Eighth District Rep. Larry Bucshon successfully guided legislation through Congress that is expected to put hydropower back on track. The bill was included in the America's Water Infrastructure Act passed in September.
He is hopeful the legislation will renew interest in developing hydropower at the dams in Newburgh and Union Town as well as others in his district.
It requires federal agencies to work together to create an expedited licensing process that will result in final decisions being made in two years or less. Regulators are also tasked with creating a list of the existing federal dams that have the greatest hydropower potential.
"It's a great source of clean energy," Buchson said. "The reason this could potentially work is that these are existing dams. A lot of the work has already been done."
Getting the various agencies, states and other involved parties to agree on that, however, historically has been difficult.
MORE DIFFICULT THAN IT SHOULD BE
Developing hydropower, say its proponents, is a lengthy and costly proposition involving navigating an alphabet soup of government agencies, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The back and forth between all those parties frequently takes years to complete.
"It's more difficult than it should be to add power generating equipment to existing dams. Hydropower is the only renewable energy source that the primary regulatory agency is at the federal level," said Jeff Leahey, executive deputy director at the National Hydropower Association. "It creates this process that has a multitude of other regulatory agencies and stakeholders. There have been some projects that have taken 10 years or longer to get through the process."
ATTEMPT AT NEWBURGH FAILED
Perhaps that is why past attempts to bring hydroelectric generation to area dams such as Newburgh have quietly withered. Local utilities rejected the idea of pursuing hydropower at the Newburgh and Myers dams as far back as 1975 as those Corps of Engineers projects neared completion.
Another attempt to bring hydropower to the Newburgh dam ended in 1997 when the developer surrendered its preliminary permit because the project was "economically infeasible," according to the Federal Register.
The status of the most recent attempt is unclear. After several years of preliminary study, in 2011 another company, Symbiotics LLC, filed an application with FERC under the name Newburgh Hydro LLC. It received a license in November 2016.
The Courier & Press attempted to contact the company but its phone numbers did not work.
TIME IS MONEY
Bucshon said he was serving on the House Committee for Energy and Commerce when he learned about the lengthy licensing process to develop hydropower.
"That was what caused a lot of the problem. It may cost millions of dollars to get through a licensing process that could take 10 to 12 years only to get denied," he said.
"Time is money. So the longer it takes the more it costs," said Jolene Thompson, executive vice president of external affairs for American Municipal Power.
Bucshon's bill to expedite that process would have been beneficial in developing AMP's Ohio River dam projects, she said.
The Ohio-based utility owns or manages five hydropower facilities at dams on the Ohio River, including one on the Kentucky shore at the Cannelton Lock and Dam about an hour's drive upriver from Evansville. It has been fully operating since 2016. As a nonprofit corporation, AMP uses its hydropower facilities to supply wholesale power to its members.
Licensing for AMP's hydroelectric facility at Smithland Lock and Dam near Bridgeport, Illinois, took 10 years to secure, said Lisa McAlister, AMP's senior vice president and general counsel. Construction on it began in 2010, and it became fully operational in August 2017.
"FERC requires a series of steps consulting with a variety of other agencies and groups. Then you wait for their response and negotiate," she said. "Once you get a final license, then that starts the actual permit process (with the Corps of Engineers)."
The environmental, conservation, historic and engineering aspects must all be studied, commented on and approved.
Although expensive upfront, hydropower's relatively low operation and maintenance costs make it an attractive proposition once it is paid off, Thompson said.
"Hydro is a long term investment," she said.
And that, said the National Hydropower Association's Leahey, is part of the reason new hydroelectric generation isn't on the map for 2019.
AT A DISADVANTAGE
Less than 3 percent of the nation's approximately 80,000 dams produce power, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. They can include everything from the locks and dams that make the Ohio and Mississippi rivers navigable to reservoir dams and even berms on farm ponds.
"Or you could look at it the other way and say that 97 percent of dams don't. So there is an awful lot of potential out there," Leahey said.
He cites several reasons for the elevation of other renewable energy sources over hydro in recent years, in addition to the difficult licensing process.
Because of hydropower's long development time, it has become less attractive to investors seeking short-term profits, Leahey said. That has been exasperated by the lapse of federal tax credits for hydropower.
"It really puts hydropower at an economic disadvantage," he said.
In addition, many of those states which require increased use of renewable energy tended to favor newer, emerging technologies such as solar and wind, Leahey said.
The interagency discussions on the new rule-making process dictated by Congress have already begun, Leahey said, and he is hopeful about the results.
"I think there is tremendous potential for using hydroelectric power generation in the United States," Bucshon said. "It's a pretty stable source of power generation. It's clean energy, and it's American made."