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Dam project draws water into energy talks

Paul Snyder
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A proposed hydropower project on the Mississippi River is inspiring a state lawmaker to reconsider his dismissal of water as a likely source of renewable energy.

“I think a lot of people just put (hydropower) out of their heads,” said state Rep. James Soletski, D-Green Bay, and chairman of the Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities. “I would count myself as one of them.

“It’s not for any malicious reason; it’s just a belief that everything’s been dammed already.”

It is an understandable belief because most Wisconsin rivers are dammed to capacity, said Jeff Rich, executive director of major projects and efficiency improvements for La Crosse-based Gundersen Lutheran Health System Inc. But he said it does not mean dams cannot be updated to generate more power.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing a proposal by Gundersen Lutheran Hydro LLC to build new hydropower generation turbines on a dam in the Mississippi River. Gundersen Lutheran is working with Houston-based Hydro Green Energy LLC on the proposal.

“Basically, this dam’s been sitting dormant for 70 years, and, because of sediment buildup, the gates are stuck,” Rich said. “We’re talking about building a new door with nine turbines that would generate power as water flows in and out of the lock.”

The project would generate 4.9 megawatts, which is enough to offset about 90 percent of the health care system’s annual electricity use, Rich said.

Although he declined to discuss exact project costs, Rich said building the new lock door and installing the turbines would cost “millions.” But, he said, it would arguably provide a more consistent energy source than wind turbines because the hydro turbines would run 24 hours a day.

Furthermore, he said, the turbines are out of sight. Aesthetics and wind turbine placement near property lines have generated complaints by those who oppose Wisconsin’s efforts to build wind farms.

Soletski said he does not know the specifics of Gundersen Lutheran’s proposal, but updating dams to generate more power is as worthy of consideration as wind and solar.

“We have to entertain other ideas,” he said.

The state is working toward nonbinding goals of letting renewable sources account for 10 percent of its energy use by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025.

Upgrading dams and hydropower generators is worth consideration, said Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin. But if the upgrades or construction is detrimental to river ecosystems, the idea could face strong opposition.

Higley said new construction of dams or major dam upgrades might not technically help the state reach its renewable energy goals.

Wisconsin Public Service Corp., for instance, last year signed an agreement with Manitoba Hydro to buy 500 megawatts of energy from a major hydropower dam project in the Canadian province of Manitoba. WPS likely will start receiving the energy in 2018.

But Higley said state law only counts hydropower generation of 60 megawatts or less as renewable energy because dam projects producing more than that are considered environmentally inappropriate.

“It can be quite a controversial topic,” he said. “But smaller upgrades can make a major difference.”

If Gundersen Lutheran’s project is successful, Soletski said, the state likely would take another look at hydropower.

“I don’t think it’s going to replace or delay our focus on wind,” he said. “But we also should not take anything for granted right now.”

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