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Infrastructure investments pay off long term; hydropower is great place to start

Upgrading turbines and generators at existing hydropower plants can provide clean electricity for future generations

The Cannelton hydroelectric project on the Ohio River, with an estimated 458 million kilowatt-hours of output annually.  

By Paul Blaszczyk, Vice President (Chicago, Illinois)

Earlier this year, the US government promoted Infrastructure Week. Don’t worry if you missed it, I think most people did. But the showcased topics are important ones that we all should talk about.

That week, a marquee speech was delivered from the banks of the Ohio River focusing on the aging inland waterway system in the United States and its dire need for repairs and upgrades. Those remarks were made from a place I know well. I have driven the remote and bumpy roads that crisscross the Ohio River hundreds of times, spent many a night in the small communities across the region, and shared a drink with locals at the town bar.   

Related item: WaterPower & Dams: Solutions that last generations

I know this river and the surrounding communities well because more than 10 years ago, one of our clients decided to make a long-term infrastructure investment. Recently, American Municipal Power, Inc. (AMP) completed four new hydropower plants along the Ohio River at existing Army Corps of Engineers locks and dams, similar to the one where that Infrastructure Week speech was delivered.  

The Meldahl hydroelectric project on the Ohio River, one of four projects for American Municipal Power, Inc., where new hydropower plants were added at existing Army Corps of Engineers locks and dams.

Planning today for the future
Our client, AMP, took a long-term perspective to their infrastructure and energy needs. They knew they would have to invest now to ensure their member communities would have access to low-cost, clean, reliable power for generations to come.  

Similarly, where would the City of New York be today if officials in the late 19th and early 20th century didn’t have the vision and foresight to invest in building a water supply system that would serve the largest city in the country for well over a century? That foresight was critical to the growth and future success of the City.

It is this foresight that AMP and the City of New York have shown, especially in the critical areas of water supply and renewable generation of electricity, that we all need when thinking about infrastructure. We must start thinking about the long-term future of the communities we call home, for these communities are made up of friends, families, and colleagues.  

The New York Times recently published a piece entitled, “Public Works Funding Falls as Infrastructure Deteriorates.” The article highlights the lack of infrastructure spending across the United States. In the second quarter of 2017, we had the lowest level of infrastructure spending on record. This does not bode well for leaving future generations on a sound footing, as our forefathers did for us. In fact, this lack of spending has become critical even in the present, as the failure of several major bridges in recent years has tragically demonstrated.    

The Stantec team is focused on long-term solutions. Our projects require large investment from leaders in both the public and private sector who can see the return not 2 years from now but 10, 20, or 50 years out. When we invest in infrastructure, it is not just our immediate needs we are addressing, but also the needs of our children and grandchildren. We should give our future generations the same opportunities for a better life and success, like was built for us.

We have a history in the United States of making these great investments. The Hoover Dam, the interstate highway program, and the inland navigation system are a few examples. But nothing lasts forever—much of their technology is now dated and the sites are showing their age. 

The Willow Island hydroelectric facility is near St. Marys, West Virginia, on the Ohio River. It has an estimated 239 million kilowatt-hours of output annually. 

Hydropower upgrades with minimal impact
By upgrading the turbines and generators at existing hydropower plants, we can increase power output at these existing plants by 30% or more. The United States can produce an additional 6,300 megawatts of clean renewable energy—enough for 3 million homes—by simply upgrading our technology at existing projects, with virtually no environmental impact. These are plants that will generate electricity for another 50 years.    

We have seen the impacts of our aging dams in places like upstate Washington, with a crack in the spillway at the Wanapum Dam Spillway after more than 50 years of outstanding service. Our team helped the owner quickly resolve the issue safely. 

More recently, the Oroville Dam spillways were damaged after they were activated in response to extremely heavy rainfall in northern California. While damage was severe and our teams are engaged in the expedited repairs, it’s important to remember that the spillways did their job and passed the water necessary to protect the main dam, the tallest in the country.

Many of the dams across the country are reaching the end of their original design life but still play a vital role in the lives of millions of Americans. Incidents like those at Oroville and Wanapum highlight the need for us to ensure this infrastructure is ready for the next event while continuing to quietly serve us day in and day out.

The need is immediate, but the benefits will last a lifetime—and likely more than a single lifetime. Today, we still benefit from the investments made by our grandparents’ generation. Let’s increase our infrastructure investment. Let’s leave the same legacy for the next generation.  

Paul has nearly 25 years of experience in the planning, design, and rehabilitation of major hydroelectric plants.

In the second quarter of 2017, we had the lowest level of infrastructure spending on record. This does not bode well for leaving future generations on a sound footing.

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