Op-ed: Central District Civil Service Commissioner Says Hydropower Was a Missed Opportunity in SP

Picture above: Grand Coulee Dam (Image courtesy of US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation – Creator: Kirsten Strough)


Humans have harnessed the power of water to perform work for thousands of years. The Greeks used water wheels to grind wheat into flour more than 2,000 years ago, while the Egyptians used Archimedean water screws for irrigation during the third century BC. The hydroelectric turbine saw emerged in the mid-1700s when a French hydraulic and military engineer wrote the groundbreaking Architecture Hydraulique. Since then, other innovations in turbine technology have appeared with the Francis turbine, the Pelton wheel and the Kaplan turbine.

Central District Civil Service Commissioner Brent Bailey

Across the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, small hydroelectric plants sprang up across the country to power mills and light some local buildings. Some of the first commercial hydroelectric installations were the Redlands Generating Station in California in 1893 and the Edward Dean Adams Generating Station built in 1895 at Niagara Falls. Soon after 1900, advances in the design of hydroelectric facilities and major political initiatives, such as the New Deal and the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, led to the construction of major projects such as the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams. Hydroelectricity accounted for 40% of the country’s electricity production in 1940.

Hydropower was seen as one of the best ways to meet the growing demand for energy and was often linked to the development of energy-intensive industries such as aluminum smelters and steel mills. However, financial constraints and concerns about the environmental and social impacts of hydroelectric development halted many projects at the end of the last century.

Some countries are currently reassessing the value and role of hydropower in national and economic development. Existing practices have been sidelined with new hydropower developments placing more emphasis on sustainability and affected communities. This change has led to a growing appreciation of the role of hydropower in combating greenhouse gas emissions, reducing poverty and driving prosperity, particularly in Asia and South America. Between 2000 and 2017, nearly 500,000 megawatts (MW) of hydroelectric capacity was added worldwide. Global installed hydropower capacity reached 1,330,000 MW in 2020.

The United States currently has 102,840 MW of hydroelectric generating capacity, consisting of 79,946 MW of conventional hydro and 22,894 MW of pumped-storage hydroelectric generating capacity. Five states, including Alabama, account for 51% of hydroelectric generating capacity. Rainfall levels can impact annual production, so capacity does not always reflect performance. Five states, including Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia, account for 61% of US hydroelectric pumped storage capacity.

However, the hydroelectric production capacity could be much higher. There are nearly 90,000 dams in the United States. Only a small fraction (3%) produces electricity. The potential hydroelectric production of these existing reservoirs could reach 12,000 MW.

Although conventional hydroelectric/hydroelectric facilities exist in almost every state, one state stands out as having no generation from hydroelectric resources – Mississippi. Despite being surrounded by rivers (Mississippi and Tennessee-Tombigbee) and ocean (Gulf of Mexico) and having hundreds of miles of rivers and streams within the state, Mississippi has not facilitated the development of this type of project. However, that could change very soon!

Rye Development, together with a financial partner, is a developer of 22 run-of-river hydroelectric projects and holds 13 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses on existing dams in six states, including four FERC licenses in the Mississippi. These projects are located in the Yazoo River basin on the four flood control dams owned and operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The lakes are Arkabutla, Enid, Grenada and Sardis. Ranging in capacity from 4.6 MW to 14.6 MW with a total capacity of 33.3 MW, the projected annual generation of 119,400 MWh will provide a valuable addition to the state’s generation mix and can power up to to 11,000 homes. The construction of these projects will create more than 150 jobs and will cost approximately $80 million. With an expected lifespan of 80 years, these projects can contribute to local economies for generations.

Rye also proposed building a hydroelectric facility at the Ross Barnett Reservoir near the spillway. The analysis indicates that three 7 MW Kaplan turbines could produce 50,000 MWh per year. Three penstocks 14 feet in diameter could be dug into the existing dam. This is a preliminary assessment and it would take a lot of work to complete.

Does hydropower have a future in Mississippi? Time will tell us. I know I’m excited about the opportunities in hydropower technology, whether run-of-river, wave, tidal, pumped or otherwise. I wish Rye Development and other innovators the best as they bring new, clean energy resources to market.

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