WJ Editorial

Hydropower Revenues Should Support Locks And Dams

Navigation is the “official” reason for building locks and dams. But many of them also generate hydropower. You could call this a side benefit. Another way to put it is that power utilities and their customers have been getting a free ride thanks to the navigation community. Utilities and their customers, including towns and cities, are just one of many interests—including recreational users—that have traditionally enjoyed the benefits of hydropower from locks and dams while not contributing to their construction and maintenance.

Even though increasing competition from cheap and clean natural gas has challenged the economics and cost efficiencies of hydropower, new hydropower facilities can still be cost-efficient—if they are built at already-existing locks and dams. On October 3, a Boston hydropower company, Rye Development, announced it was continuing to explore building a new 25-megawatt facility at Dashields Locks and Dam, a project Rye first conceived in 2013.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, 74 percent of new and planned dam capacity additions from 2006 to 2016 occurred along the Ohio River. Existing conventional hydroelectric generators in the U.S. provided 251 million megawatt hours of electricity in 2015, or about 6 percent of annual total net production. Not all of these facilities include locks, but many do.

That side benefit of hydropower has become a focus of debates in the Twin Cities about whether or not to deauthorize three locks and dams in downtown Minneapolis—Lock and Dam No. 1, the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam and the Upper St. Anthony Lock—since they no longer support commercial navigation.

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The Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock was closed to all traffic by Congress in June 2015 as part of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, ostensibly as part of efforts to combat encroaching Asian carp. The closure ended commercial barging in downtown Minneapolis in 2015 and removed it as head of navigation.

The three plants produce 42 mw. of electricity an hour, or 368,000 megawatt-hours a year, enough to power about 30,000 homes.

The St. Paul Engineer District has been holding public hearings on the deauthorization idea and expects to issue a report in 2019 after gathering public comments this summer.

Some local environmentalists are beguiled by the idea of kayakers shooting the rapids of a restored “wild” Mississippi River past gleaming corporate headquarters and luxury condo developments.

But even though the percentage of hydropower generated by the dams is small (hydropower provides only about 2 percent of the state’s total power), it is a clean and green energy source in this green state. What is more important, the power generated by the downtown dams is consumed by nearby customers. That’s important because electricity that doesn’t have to travel far is both cheaper and greener; power shipped over long distances can experience “line loss.”

Those hydropower benefits of locks and dams are why the Waterways Council Inc. has been proposing a sensible and cost-effective measure to help sustain the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF): Congress should redirect a percentage of already-existing hydropower receipts from general revenues to the IWTF.