A Capital Region engineering firm wants to use the Erie Canal locks along the Mohawk River as sites for generating hydroelectric power -a project that reflects renewed interest in hydropower nationwide.
James Besha, the president of Albany Engineering Corp., said he believes his company can generate millions of dollars worth of electricity annually , enough to power tens of thousands of homes, by constructing floating hydroelectric power generators at Erie Canal Locks 8 through 15, which run from Glenville to Fort Plain.
“Those are the locks that have dams and those sites have never had hydroelectric generation on them, primarily because the dams are taken up during the winter time and there’s no power that can be generated,” Besha said. “We came up with the concept to allow the dams to operate just as they do now, allowing them to come down during the winter, but we would only generate power during the summer when the dams are up. To do this we won’t have fixed generators in, place; we’ll use portable, mobile power generators that would float.”
Albany Engineering Corp. operates and maintains other conventional hydroelectric plants in other parts of the state, including the Watervliet Hydroelectric Plant and plants in Mechanicville and Green Island.
The firm has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approval of a $58 million project to build and install the mobile power generators along the Mohawk River, a project Besha said he believes is unprecedented.
“I don’t think anything like this has ever been done in the United States, it may have been done in other parts of the world but not here,”?he said.
The Mohawk River proposal comes at a time when the federal government is encouraging more hydroelectric power generation.
Albany Engineering’s FERC application is only one of the more than 60,000 megawatts worth of preliminary permits and projects awaiting final approval from FERC.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees hydroelectric projects in the U.S., issued 125 preliminary hydropower permits last year, up from 95 in 2011. Preliminary permits allow a company to explore a project for up to three years. The agency issued 25 licenses for hydropower projects last year, the most since 2005.
“We’re seeing a significant change in attitude,” said Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association, a trade group.
Hydroelectric development stagnated in the 1980s and 1990s as environmental groups lobbied against it and a long regulatory process required years of environmental study. But now power companies are proposing new projects to take advantage of government financial incentives, policies that promote renewable energy over fossil fuels and efforts to streamline the permit process.
Hydroelectricity got a boost in 2005, when Congress approved a tax credit for hydropower that was already in place for other sources of renewable energy, including wind and solar.
President Barack Obama signed two bills last month designed to spark more interest in hydropower. One directs the FERC to consider adopting a two-year licensing process at existing non-powered dams. The second authorizes quicker action on proposals for small hydro projects at dams owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The Department of Energy concluded last year that the U.S. could boost its hydropower capability by 15 percent by fitting nearly 600 existing dams with generators.
Hydroelectricity provides about 7 percent of the nation’s power using about 2,500 dams. But those dams are just a fraction of the 80,000 in the United States. Most were built for flood control, or like the Erie Canal were built for river navigation.
Besha said he believes his company’s concept will provide the first financially viable model for tapping a system of smaller dams like the Erie Canal.
Albany Engineering’s proposed project won’t generate many, if any, local jobs, Besha said it should generate an enormous amount of property tax revenue. He said each of the floating power plants would be assessed as if they were stationary power plants, buildings valued at upwards of $1 million each. He said he doesn’t know yet if the power generators would pay taxes within the municipalities they generate electricity or wherever they are stored on Jan. 1 of each year.
Fort Plain Mayor Guy Barton said the power generators could be a windfall for his flood-ravaged community. “If they are taxed in our village, I’m all for it, but if they are only taxed in one municipality, wherever they store them, and it isn’t Fort Plain, I think the communities along the river should look for ways to share the revenue,” he said.
Besha said he expects FERC to rule on his permit application sometime in 2014.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.