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Hydro power shows signs of comeback

America's search for cleaner electricity has developers studying dozens of government flood-control dams from North Carolina to Oregon to see if it makes financial sense to retrofit them with hydroelectric turbines.

The studies are part of a broader trend that has developers looking at everything from millpond dams in New England to locks and dams on navigable waterways such as the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Factors ranging from the difficulty in obtaining permits for new coal-fired power plants to government renewable energy mandates and tax credits have created a potential market for new hydroelectric projects.

"You've created both the stick and the carrot," said David Sinclair, president of Advanced Hydro Solutions. Sinclair's Ohio-based company is focusing on four potential hydropower projects involving government dams in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Sinclair says government dams often lend themselves to hydropower. Some, such as the Tygart Dam near Grafton, were even built with hydropower in mind: the Corps of Engineers' designed it in the 1930s with twin 15-foot-diameter tunnels. The tunnels have been capped ever since, but Sinclair's company is studying whether it's economical to pull the plugs, install turbines and start generating electricity.

"I could kiss the engineer that did that," Sinclair said.

Despite its advantages, Tygart is no sure thing for conversion. Neither are dozens of other government dams. The process requires years of careful planning, chiefly to avoid disturbing a dam's original purpose or from damaging the environment.

Developers have been trying for years to develop the Corps' Bluestone Dam near Hinton, for instance, and have yet to get past the initial stages despite government support.

"There's a reason that hydro isn't on a lot of these dams right now," said John Seebach, who directs the hydropower reform initiative for Washington, D.C.-based environmental group American Rivers. "It was because it just didn't make financial sense."

That's starting to change.

Developers now have a potential market for hydropower from utilities more interested in upping the size of their renewable energy portfolios than increasing generating capacity, said Jeff Herholdt, director of West Virginia's Division of Energy.

"The power ends up in our markets, but the green credits are being sold."

As a result, West Virginia, which is far better known for its vast coal reserves, is enjoying a bit of a hydropower renaissance. Tygart and other projects hold the promise of increasing the state's 264-megawatt hydropower capacity almost 50 percent, according to Herholdt.

"We're certainly not talking about new dams," he said. "Our intent is trying to making sure that, with the dams we have, that they are being advanced. It would look like that's happening."

That's happening elsewhere as well.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission figures show permit applications from would-be developers of conventional hydroelectric dams jumped to 177 last year from 78 in 2006. Through late November, the commission had received another 132 applications this year.

"The FERC right now is inundated," Sinclair said.

A fair number of those permit applications involve federal flood control dams.

FERC records list about two dozen permits for possible hydro projects on federal flood control dams across the country. A review by federal agencies found about 64 of 871 federal dams merited further study as potential hydro sites, according to a 2007 report.

Combined, the agencies say they have the potential to generate 1,230 megawatts of electricity. That's roughly 42 percent as much as American Electric Power's John Amos coal-fired plant produces, or enough for a month's worth of electricity for more than 1.2 million homes.

FERC records show dams under consideration are scattered across the country: permits have been issued to investigate sites in Kentucky, West Virginia, Oregon, Iowa, Texas and California. Going from a permit to an actual hydroelectric dam, however, is a lengthy process.

Firms like Sinclair's have to figure out how they can add hydropower without damaging the environment - or altering a dam's original purpose. That's a lengthy process that can cost upward of $1 million, Sinclair said.

However, the process ends up with a project designed to cause no additional harm and, perhaps, even improve a river, said Seebach, whose group is better known for trying to remove dams than supporting them. American Rivers has, however, been working with the hydropower industry on converting existing dams.

"I'm not too worried about them as a class," he said. "They don't want to develop projects that are going to hurt the environment."

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