The largest hydroelectric projects built in Kentucky in nearly 40 years are set to begin operation in 2016, and studies show the state has significant potential to generate even more power from its waters.
The series of locks and dams on the Kentucky River are among the places that hold promise to expand the state’s supply of hydropower to meet an interest in renewable energy.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued licenses Dec. 21 to build two more small hydroelectric facilities at locks and dams on the river, and there are preliminary permits covering other sites on the river and around the state.
“There’s potential for a lot more hydroelectric power in Kentucky than what we have now,” said David Brown Kinloch, a partner in a company that operates the only generating plant on the Kentucky River.
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On the Ohio River, American Municipal Power, based in Ohio, is adding hydroelectric generators at three existing dams along Bracken, Hancock and Livingston counties. All three are scheduled to begin commercial production in 2016, said Kent Carson, a spokesman for the company.
The total annual output of the three will be enough to power nearly 100,000 homes, according to the company.
The American Municipal projects are the biggest addition to hydroelectric generation in the state since turbines started turning at Laurel River Dam in 1977.
Most of the power from the three new plants will go to other states, but the Kentucky cities of Paducah and Princeton will receive electricity from them, Carson said.
Hydroelectric power has a long history in Kentucky. The state’s oldest hydropower unit, the Kentucky Utilities facility at Dix Dam, dates to 1925.
Coal has long been king of electricity production, however. Coal-fired power plants produced 92 percent of the electricity generated in Kentucky in 2014, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
3.4 percent The percentage of Kentucky’s electricity produced by seven hydroelectric dams in 2014.
The seven hydroelectric dams in Kentucky generated 3.4 percent of the electricity produced in the state in 2014.
That was much less than in some other states. The state of Washington gets 80 percent of its electricity from hydropower, for instance, said Jeffrey A. Leahey, deputy executive director of the National Hydropower Association.
Still, hydropower was by far the biggest source of renewable energy produced in Kentucky, at 87 percent, and the state has dozens of spots where more hydroelectric generators could be installed.
There are 33 dams in the state or on the Ohio River, built for reasons such as flood control, water supply or navigation, that don’t have hydroelectric facilities, according to the Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Adding turbines and generators to be turned by water flowing through those “non-powered” dams could quadruple Kentucky’s annual hydroelectric production, Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers estimated in a 2012 study.
Most of that potential rests at four dams on the Ohio River between Kentucky and either Indiana or Illinois.
Those are the top four non-powered dams in the nation in terms of their potential energy production, according to the Oak Ridge study.
The study estimated several other non-powered dams in Kentucky would rank among the top 100 nationally in potential production, including Dewey Dam in Floyd County; Steve Boone Dam in Henry County; and Kentucky River locks and dams in Anderson and Garrard counties.
Those top 100 dams were ones with the potential to produce at least 20 megawatts of electricity.
Kentucky River plans
Most sites the study identified in Kentucky would have lower potential capacity.
Kinloch, a Louisville engineer, said he and his partners received federal licenses on Dec. 21 to build two 2.6 megawatt hydropower units on the Kentucky River, one at Lock and Dam 12 in Estill County and the other at Lock and Dam 14 in Lee County.
The plants would each generate enough electricity for an average of 1,200 homes, Kinloch said.
The company had been pursuing the licenses more than seven years, highlighting a process many in the hydropower industry argue is too cumbersome and time-consuming.
The goverment still has to approve the final blueprints, but construction could start at Lock and Dam 12 in 2016, Kinloch said.
The plan is to begin building at Lock and Dam 12 first and start at 14 about a year later, with about 18 months needed to finish each facility, Kinloch said.
His partnership is considering building small hydroelectric plants at other spots as well.
“We’ve got a number of sites in our crosshairs,” Kinloch said.
I can find all sorts of customers for the power. There is an appetite for renewable energy.
David Brown Kinloch, a partner in Shaker Landing Hydro Associates
Kinloch and partners operate the only existing hydroelectric plant on the Kentucky River, called the Mother Ann Lee Hydroelectric Station.
The facility at Lock and Dam 7, between Mercer and Jessamine counties, produces enough electricity for about 1,100 homes on average, Kinloch said.
It is named for the spiritual leader of the Shakers. The religious sect founded a community nearby in Mercer County in the early 1800s, now known as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
Kentucky Utilities operated the plant from the late 1920s until 1999, when problems left all three generating units inoperable.
Kinloch, Bob Fairchild and David Coyte, who are partners in a company called Shaker Landing Hydro Associates and support development of renewable energy, bought the plant in December 2005.
It took about thee years to get all three generators back in service, but the partners did it, repairing equipment, adding stainless steel parts and updating wiring and electronics to improve the plant’s connection to the electric grid and allow remote operation of the facility.
The plant has propellers — called runners — that are turned by water flowing through the spillway at the dam. The propellers turn turbines that are connected by shafts to three generators painted in Mardi Gras colors in the powerhouse, about 45 feet above the river.
Salt River Electric, a cooperative based in Bardstown, owns half the plant with Shaker Landing Hydro Associates and buys all the electricity it makes.
The price for the hydropower is lower than for electricity from the co-op’s primary provider, and the plant has been a positive return on investment, said Tim Sharp, the president and chief executive officer.
“It’s been a great deal for us,” Sharp said.
The plant also sells renewable energy credits, which are particularly in demand in states that require utilities to get a certain amount of power from renewable sources such as hydropower, solar and wind in order to boost those sources and cut pollution from power plants that burn fossil fuels such as coal.
Kentucky does not have such a standard.
The non-powered dams in Kentucky are among thousands nationwide without generating equipment.
The 2012 Oak Ridge study said that adding such facilities to non-powered dams could produce enough additional electricity to serve 4.8 million homes, with Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana having the greatest potential.
Leahey predicted there will be a mix of large and small hydroelectric facilities added around the country.
“There is growing interest in hydro across the country,” said Leahey.
Environmental concerns will be one factor in how much hydropower production increases in Kentucky and elsewhere.
Many environmental groups oppose new dams because of their impact on rivers, fish and ecosystems, and there is a persistent push to remove many of the dams around the country.
There also can be environmental concerns about adding hydro units to existing dams.
But adding hydropower units to dams that aren’t likely to be removed because they’re needed for other reasons, such as providing flood control or a water supply, is less controversial for many environmentalists than building new dams.
The conservation group American Rivers supports responsible development of hydropower units on existing dams if they are designed and operated to minimize environmental damage, according to its website.
“As a class, these projects are much less likely to have negative environmental impacts,” said John Seebach, the organization’s vice president of river basin conservation policies.
The Mother Ann Lee station was one of the first in the nation certified by the Low Impact Hydropower Institute for providing protection for river flow, water quality, fish passage, threatened species, recreation and other resources.
Kinloch said he and his partners asked the state to include tougher standards on the station’s water-quality certificate.
“You can design a plant so that it has almost no impact on fish,” Kinloch said.
Hank Graddy, an attorney who heads the water committee of the state Sierra Club chapter, called the Cumberland Chapter, said the organization’s policy is that if an existing dam is not scheduled for demolition, it can support adding small, properly-designed hydropower units on a case by case basis.
Graddy said some spots on the Kentucky River appear to be acceptable for hydro units.
However, the Sierra Club checks hydropower proposals closely to make sure the units would adequately protect the environment, Graddy said, noting the Cumberland Chapter was born of a fight to stop a dam on the Red River.
“We look at each one of these hard,” he said.
The question of where to sell additional hydropower from Kentucky will be another key to how much capacity is added, Stump said.
Kinloch said hydropower can compete on price with other electricity sources if it is done well. And right now, selling it isn’t a problem, he said.
“I can find all sorts of customers for the power,” he said. “There is an appetite for renewable energy.”