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Surge in Mississippi River Hydro Proposals Points to Coming Boom

Nearly 100 pre-application documents and proposals have been filed for conventional hydro and alternative hydrokinetic projects along the Mississippi

By Frank Jossi, Midwest Energy News

Jun 22, 2011
Hydro Green Energy

One of the nation's untapped reservoirs of energy may turn out to be the Mississippi River.

Energy developers have filed 19 pre-application documents with the (FERC) proposing hydro projects on locks and dams on the northern Mississippi, from Hastings, Minnesota to Cairo, Illinois.

Proposals also have been developed for conventional hydropower on rivers with locks and dams in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Iowa, as well as in other parts of the country.

In addition, more than 74 pre-application proposals have been filed for hydrokinetic energy projects in the southern Mississippi, which call for underwater turbines to be secured with pilings attached to the river's floor. The southern section is more suited to hydrokinetic due to the depth of the water, the swiftness of currents and the lack of dams.

The proposals represent a larger effort by energy developers to seize the opportunity to use hydro in all its forms — from tidal power on coastal rivers to wave energy in the sea — to provide a new source of cleaner power.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has suggested hydropower could add 70,000 megawatts to the grid, the equivalent of 70 nuclear power plants, by using improved turbines at current dams and adding capacity to those which produce no energy.

In the northern states, two small energy development companies — Boston-based (FFP) and Houston-based — have submitted all the applications to produce hydropower on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' lock and dam system. Formed within the last five years, both companies have plans in other states as well.

Only around 2,000 of the nation's 79,000 dams are equipped with generators, leaving a great deal of potential on the table, say hydropower advocates. Most of the locks and dams offer "low-head" hydropower where the differential between the height of river before and after the dam is 30 feet or less. They are sometimes called "run-of-the-river" power plants because they do not stop flows or create pooling upstream.

In the past, exploiting the energy potential of small dams was not thought possible or worth the trouble of dealing with FERC. But three factors — affordable technology, a simpler approach to licensing small hydropower projects and the availability of tax credits — have helped bolster the industry.

'We Need to Diversify Our Energy'

The lock and dam projects on the Mississippi would generate 321 megawatts of electricity, or more than double the amount the river's 20 hydroelectric plants currently generate, according to Rupak Thapaliya, national coordinator for the in Washington, D.C., an organization that lobbies for the removal of dams that have proven detrimental to the environment.

Much of the activity is happening downriver, where hydrokinetic developers, including FFP, want to add 6,000 megawatts, Thapaliya said.

While those numbers may seem impressive, they're quite small compared to the output of dams in the Pacific Northwest, which provide the majority of that region's electricity. Washington state's Grand Coulee Dam, for instance, produces 6,800 megawatts, more than all the proposed projects on the Mississippi combined.

And while the projects, if built, would roughly double the hydropower output of the nine states along the Mississippi, they would still only amount to slightly more than 6 percent of the region's energy capacity, Thapaliya said.

"If every single project was built entirely, the total contribution to the energy portfolio would not be very great," he noted. "That tells us we need to diversity our energy sources. Hydro alone is not going to meet our energy challenges."

Still, he's not opposed to lock and dam projects, calling them "less controversial" and "relatively benign." His major concern is water quality and other potential impacts of hydrokinetic plants.

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