By CHRIS HUBBUCH
Wisconsin State Journal
WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. (AP) — Decades before the construction of Wisconsin’s first coal-fired generator, an engineer named Magnus Swenson and his partners had begun harnassing the power of the Wisconsin River behind a wall of concrete.
More than a century later, the Kilbourn dam is still churning out electricity, enough to power nearly 5,000 Wisconsin homes last year. It’s one of more than 140 hydroelectric dams that generated more than 4% of Wisconsin’s electricity supply last year — and nearly half of all the renewable energy used in the state.
“We are the original renewables,” said Amanda Blank, site manager for hydroelectric and gas operations at Alliant Energy, which owns the Kilbourn dam along with the larger Prairie du Sac dam just downriver. “We plan to be here for a long time. We also add a lot to our communities.”
Recognizing the growing threat of climate change, conservation organizations that have long opposed dams for the damage they inflict on rivers have now begun to embrace hydroelectricity as a source of clean energy, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Even so, it has been decades since the construction of a new hydroelectric dam in Wisconsin. The steep up-front costs of dam projects, the strict regulations they’re subject to and their environmental consequences make hydroelectricity a poor replacement for increasingly inefficient and dirty fossil fuel.
Throughout 15 states and one Canadian province, the Midwestern grid operator has received requests to study just three hydroelectric projects, having a combined capacity of 114 megawatts. Meanwhile, there are nearly 98,000 megawatts of solar, wind and battery projects under consideration.
“Dams are inherently expensive to build,” said Ian Baird, a UW-Madison geographer who studies hydropower. “The economics are just not there, even if you’re really concerned about climate change. Hydropower is not the answer.”
Although hydroelectricity is considered renewable energy under state law, it does have significant consequences for the environment. Dams can alter water flow and temperatures, impeding the movement of aquatic species, even leading to extinction.
“We are firm believers that it’s healthier for our rivers and streams to be free-flowing,” said Allison Werner, policy and advocacy director for the Wisconsin River Alliance.
After a half-century of fighting dams, a group of conservation organizations reached a truce last month with the hydropower industry, agreeing to try to generate more clean energy from existing dams while holding environmental harm to a minimum. Meanwhile, the movement to remove dams has hardly let up.
Take the Pine River dam, which was completed in 1922. The 3.6-megawatt dam is one of three such structures along the Wisconsin-Michigan that We Energies agreed to remove as part of a historic 1997 deal with federal, state and nonprofit agencies.
Two and a half years in the making, the agreement, negotiated by groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Wildlife Fund and American Rivers, is the result of the increasingly common recognition that climate change poses a greater ecological threat than dams.
“To rapidly and substantially decarbonize the nation’s electricity system, the parties recognize the role that U.S. hydropower plays as an important renewable energy resource,” the agreement states. “At the same time, our nation’s waterways, and the biodiversity and ecosystem services they sustain, are vulnerable to the compounding factors of a changing climate, habitat loss, and alteration of river processes.”
The agreement calls for removing dams that are obsolete or that produce environmental harm that can’t be mitigated, rehabilitating others to make them safer and retrofitting existing dams to generate more power. Generation equipment could also be added to some of the more than 80,000 dams now used for other purposes in Wisconsin.
Jose Zayas, the former director of the Wind and Water Power Technologies Office of the federal Department of Energy and a participant in the negotiations, said the agreement is critical to preserving and expanding hydroelectric power, even if it won’t result in a flurry of construction projects.
“We’re not going to see the large-type infrastructure like Niagara or the Hoover dam. Those opportunities have been exploited in the U.S.,” Zayas said. “Only about 3% of the nation’s dams actually have power. … We believe there’s quite a bit of opportunity to add generation to that existing mission.”
The first hydroelectric power plant ever put into operation was built in 1882 on the Fox River near Appleton to supply electricity to a nearby home and paper mill.
Today only three states — California, New York and Maine — have more hydroelectric dams than Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ inventory of dams.
But with Wisconsin’s relatively flat landscape, the generating capacity of its dams is relatively small. The 144 dams listed in the Department of Natural Resource’s database can produce only about 750 megawatts.
That’s about the equivalent of one modern natural gas plant.
A 2012 study found that 12,000 megawatts could be added — resulting in a roughly 15% increase — by adding turbines and generators to dams now used for flood control, navigation or water supply.
About two-thirds of that potential could be achieved with just 100 dams, mostly Corps of Engineers structures like those that maintain a 9-foot deep channel for barges on rivers like the Mississippi. The study estimates the Upper Mississippi River basin could generate enough energy to supply more than 1.1 million average Wisconsin homes.
A 2016 Department of Energy study identified an even larger role for pumped storage, a system in which water is pumped into elevated reservoirs during times of excess generation and then released to generate electricity when demand is high. Together, the study estimated these hydroelectric sources could power 35 million homes by 2050, saving billions of dollars in avoided costs associated with climate change.
Yet past attempts to install generators on the Mississippi River have fizzled.
In 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted a Boston startup a license to develop hydroelectric generators at nine lock and dam sites. The company had said the project would generate enough electricity for 65,000 homes.
The following year another company received a license for a 5-megawatt generator on a Corps of Engineers dam in Genoa. Both companies surrendered their permits in 2012 after citing technical and market conditions.
Meanwhile, work to repower old dams hasn’t always succeeded.
In 2011, Western Technical College purchased a dam on the La Crosse River that hadn’t produced power in more than 40 years and spent about $4 million to promote clean energy.
This fall, the college agreed to sell the Angelo dam for $80,000 to a private hydroelectric company, citing growing costs and liabilities as well as lack of student interest in a hydropower curriculum.
“It happens with villages and municipalities,” said Chris Cutts, managing partner of ReNew Hydro Power, the company seeking to take over the license. “It’s not their business… It’s a tough row to hoe unless it’s your career.”