Hydro power big locally

MARIETTA – A Boston-based company is pursuing the installation of hydroelectric facilities on seven dams on the Muskingum River.

Free Flow Power applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in November to operate seven low-head units that would generate 22 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 19,000 homes.

“Head” is a measure of the pressure of falling water used for hydroelectric power generation. The higher the head, the more available power. Muskingum River dams are classified as “low head.”

The applications starts a process allowing the commission to begin an environmental assessment of the project, Daniel Lissner, general counsel and spokesman for Free Flow Power.

“But that’s just in the beginning stages,” Lissner said.

The assessment procedure will include at least one public meeting to be scheduled later this year that will provide an opportunity for people to learn more about the project and identify issues, if any, that may need to be addressed at that time, he said.

“(The commission) has issued a schedule that includes results from completion of the environmental assessment in early 2014,” Lissner added. “We’re hoping that a license to begin the project will come soon after.”

Free Flow may try to expedite the project because of significant federal tax credits that could be obtained if work on the hydro power initiative begins this year, Lissner said.

“We’re exploring whether that could be a possibility as we pursue the licensing and continue to work with the state department of natural resources on leasing of facilities and any land required around the dams for our operations,” Lissner said.

All seven dams are owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the Muskingum River Parkway.

Concerns about the proposed hydro power project have been aired by Friends of the Lower Muskingum.

“We want to make sure that water will continue to flow over the dams after these facilities are installed,” said Marilyn Ortt, a member of the Lower Muskingum group.

During initial public meetings about the project in early 2011, Ortt said members were “taken aback to learn that if this project is implemented, there will be no water going over the dams for about half of each year.”

The river would be routed through turbines instead of over the dams, and at low water times of the year there could be no flow at all, which would impact oxygenation of the water vital to supporting fish and other aquatic life, Ortt said.

Other concerns included how the plants might affect boating and other recreational use of the river.

“We would have to look at the licensing applications to see if those concerns were covered,” Ortt said.

The concerns are important and are receiving Free Flow’s full attention, Lissner said.

“We’ve had conversations with Friends of the Lower Muskingum, and have provided them with copies of our license applications,” he said. “All of the dams will operate in what’s called a ‘run of river’ mode, using available water as it flows over the dams to operate the turbines.”

Continuous flow over the dams would be maintained for aesthetic purposes and to enhance aquatic habitat, Lissner said.

“We’ve found the hydro power facilities help provide an excellent habitat for fish,” he said. “And we’re working with ODNR on plans that will protect continued recreational uses at the dams.”

Free Flow Power is pursuing a number of similar small hydro power projects in other areas, but Lissner said the Muskingum River facilities will be among the first to go into operation once licensing is approved by the commission.

Licensing is being sought for projects on locks and dams at Devola, Lowell, Beverly, Malta/McConnelsville, Rokeby, Philo and Zanesville.

A larger hydroelectric project is under construction at the Willow Island Dam on the Ohio River in Pleasants County. It is expected to go into commercial operation in the fall of 2014, according to American Municipal Power Ohio.

The plant has been under construction since June 2011 and will have an estimated generation capacity of 35 megawatts.