A powerful urge exists to tap rivers for energy

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In this city defined by its three rivers, each one punctuated by dams, you'd think Pittsburgh long ago would have figured a way to get some juice from the flow.

Both the city and Allegheny County were licensed to generate hydroelectric power from existing dams on the Allegheny and Ohio rivers in the 1980s. Bundles of tax dollars were spent on plans and license fees. All that money was essentially flushed down the river. Nothing was built.

Now comes a Boston company, Free Flow Power, to tap into this neglected resource. It's been looking at our rivers for almost three years and claims to have spent $4 million conducting environmental and engineering studies, using Western Pennsylvania companies. The goal is the generation of electrical power from as many as 10 existing dams from Beaver County to Morgantown, W.Va., within the next five years.

We may be talking about only a drop in the energy bucket. The dams would average less than 15 megawatts apiece, and each megawatt can power hundreds, not thousands, of homes. That may not seem like much of a jolt in the midst of the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom, whose boosters claim, "If the Marcellus were a country it would rank fifth in world gas production -- ahead of Qatar.''

Yet harnessing energy from the water has a compelling purity. That water would flow over the dams in the same way it does now. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains them, will not make any additional releases to provide hydropower. Free Flow Power can only use what slops over. The corps will continue making its dam decisions based on its missions of maintaining navigable waterways, mitigating floods and so on.

"They're using flows we'd use anyway,'' corps spokesman Jeff Benedict said of the proposals.

The corps can operate the dams the same way, whether or not there's a concrete powerhouse at the opposite end from the locks. The only difference would be that the electricity to operate the dam would be paid for by Free Flow Power, a welcome dividend for a strapped federal government.

Tom Feldman, vice president of project development for Free Flow Power, met me Friday morning before he was to make a presentation to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. I'd wondered how, with Marcellus gas putting a dent in coal and nuclear power plans, a new player could enter the energy field

"There's always going to be a place for hydropower,'' Mr. Feldman said.

Indeed, four hydropower operations are on the upper Allegheny River already, though the closest is in Schenley, Armstrong County. Uncle Sam would like to see more.

Congress passed a bill, signed by President Barack Obama last summer, that streamlines the regulatory process for hydro, "the largest source of clean, renewable electricity in the United States.'' But navigating the federal agencies is still trickier than getting a coal barge up and down the rivers. Mr. Feldman all but beamed when he said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had received FFP's license application last month after nearly three years of studying the feasibility of hydro power on our rivers.

For George Tkach, that's bittersweet news. Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Tkach was in the Allegheny County administration that looked into hydropower. Fifteen years ago, as mayor of Rankin, he offered this newspaper his four top desires for Pittsburgh: a riverfront development district; a bike trail to Washington, D.C.; the naming of Allegheny River bridges in honor of prominent Pittsburghers; and hydropower on the rivers.

You could say he's four-for-four, but he wanted the governments to reap the hydro revenue so they could use it to finance the massive job of modernizing the storm sewers, so "the rivers could actually clean themselves up,'' as he put it.

I drove Mr. Tkach to Allegheny Lock and Dam No. 2, just downriver from the Highland Park Bridge, where the city once had a license to build a power plant. It's in FFP's plans now. Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority officials have been in touch with Free Flow Power, but the PWSA would be a potential customer, not the operator.

"If nothing else,'' Mr. Tkach said, "it's going to reduce the dependency on fossil fuel."

Go with the flow, Mr. Tkach. This beats letting all that dam power go to waste.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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