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Western Pa.'s rivers an 'untapped resource,' Boston company says

| Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 7:49 p.m.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Lock Number 2 under the Highland Park Bridge February 14, 2014 along the Allegheny River.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Lock Number 2 under the Highland Park Bridge February 14, 2014 along the Allegheny River.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Lock Number 2 under the Highland Park Bridge February 14, 2014 along the Allegheny River.

A Boston company is seeking approval to build 10 hydroelectric power stations on the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers.

Tom Feldman, Free Flow Power's vice president of project development, said his company targeted Western Pennsylvania about three years ago. After it completes environmental and engineering studies, the company will submit final license applications to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

On Feb. 7, Free Flow submitted its first application, which seeks a license to build a power plant at Allegheny Lock and Dam No. 2, owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, downstream from the Highland Park Bridge.

“Our thesis is that there's an untapped resource,” Feldman said. “There's economic development opportunities for the local community associated with building what will be a very long-lived asset that will deliver a lot of renewable energy for several generations.”

The low-impact facilities would produce five to 40 megawatts of power. A 10-megawatt facility, Feldman said, can provide enough energy to power about 4,600 homes a year.

But residential power isn't the goal. If Free Flow builds the plant, it would sell the power to utilities or directly to industrial and commercial customers.

Construction for the plant near the Highland Park Bridge would cost about $82 million. Feldman said the company is not seeking tax credits or grants.

Once built, the plants' operating costs would be low, given there is no need to purchase fuel, Feldman said, and the appeal is high for commercial customers that can lock in long-term rates.

Although Free Flow has studied the area and its possibilities for years, the approval process for construction is lengthy. By December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will issue an environmental analysis of the Highland Park application. It also could open a public comment period before issuing the license. The Army Corps and Pennsylvania would require additional permits.

Feldman said the goal is to begin construction in 2017 or 2018.

Jeff Benedict, hydropower coordinator with the Army Corps, said hydroelectric power facilities were built along Western Pennsylvania rivers in the 1980s. Benedict said power facilities don't change the operation of the lock and dam.

“They operate based on flows that would typically come out of a lock and dam,” he said.

This week, FirstEnergy Corp., the parent company of West Penn Power, sold three hydropower facilities at locks and dams in Warren, Schenley and Ford City as part of a $395 million deal with Harbor Hydro Holdings. Collectively, the 11 facilities in the deal have a capacity of 527 megawatts.

Jim McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, said his organization encourages power-generating facilities as long as they don't disrupt navigation of the river.

“We think these are good ideas,” he said. “We've got a great resource here, with these locks and dams.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reachedat 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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