Rivers of power: Pittsburgh could use its waterways for electricity

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Pittsburgh’s rivers move the fuel for coal-fired power stations, then become the depository for the plants’ dirty particulates. Isn’t it time the water in those rivers was used to generate clean power?

That’s the idea of Free Flow Power, a Boston-based renewable energy company. It would like to build 10 small hydropower stations near existing locks and dams on the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers. Harnessing the constant flow of a waterway to do work is an ancient idea made modern by electricity generation technology.

Free Flow Power plans to do that in the Pittsburgh region by investing $380 million to construct the plants, which must be individually permitted and could be operational in 2018.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the locks and dams, favors hydropower development but needs assurance that the plants won’t have a negative impact on its own operations. Same goes for the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, which looks out for commercial interests that use the rivers for transportation; it needs to know that water flow, particularly during dry periods, won’t be diverted to the plants in a way that jeopardizes river navigation.

Free Flow believes the 10 prospective plants, which would generate enough electricity to power 65,000 homes, can fit in without disruption. At this stage, the company is meeting with state regulators after having filed its licensing applications with federal officials.

Let’s hope its new proposal for capturing an old source of energy passes muster. When a light goes on with hydropower, a river runs through it.

First Published April 2, 2014 12:00 AM

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