The Red Rock Dam near Pella, Iowa will soon be home to the state's second-largest hydro plant. (Photo by Carl Wycoff via Creative Commons)
The Red Rock Dam near Pella, Iowa will soon be home to the state's second-largest hydro plant. (Photo by Carl Wycoff via Creative Commons)
The Red Rock Dam near Pella, Iowa will soon be home to the state’s second-largest hydro plant. (Photo by Carl Wycoff via Creative Commons)

Iowa is firmly established as a national leader in biofuels and wind energy, and the state’s solar market is starting to bloom.

Could Iowa take a similar leadership role on hydropower?

In the state that ranks third nationwide in terms of installed wind-energy capacity – about 27 percent of Iowa’s power comes from wind – state Rep. Dan Kelley believes that hydropower ultimately could produce as much power as Iowa’s wind turbines.

“The state of Iowa has become a national leader in wind energy, and that shows we have the wherewithal and the interest to pursue renewables to a great extent,” Kelley said. “There’s no reason we can’t do the same with hydropower. That’s why I’m trying to take the lead in these efforts.”

Kelley, a Democrat from Newton, serves a district just north of the state’s newest hydro project on the Red Rock Dam. He plans to introduce a measure in the 2015 session of the Iowa Legislature to fund a study to investigate further expansion of hydropower.

While matching the state’s wind output would be a major stretch, the waterways in and bordering Iowa could certainly produce more electricity than they do today.

A study completed in 2012 for the U.S. Department of Energy found 12,000 megawatts of untapped potential on the nation’s existing dams capable of producing 1 MW or more. That’s enough electricity to power 4 million typical homes. The top 100 dam sites accounted for about 8,000 of those MW.

The report ranked Iowa tenth among the states, with the potential to generate 427 MW. While that’s a far cry from the state’s more than 5,000 MW of installed wind capacity, it would roughly quadruple the hydropower now produced in Iowa.

Illinois ranked first in the study, with the potential to generate at least 1,269 megawatts. Missouri ranked 8th, with the projected potential to produce 489 megawatts from additional hydropower development.

Easier said than done

While on the staff of the Navigant energy consulting firm a couple years ago, Lisa Frantzis helped to produce a study that estimated that hydropower capacity in the U.S. could increase from 100,000 MW to 400,000 MW. Frantzis is now senior vice president of strategy for Advanced Energy Economy.

A quadrupling of hydropower in Iowa isn’t out of the question, at least technically speaking, she said, but “the barrier is always permitting issues. That typically has been the stumbling block.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns most of the dams that are most suitable for power plants, “makes it hard” to develop them as power generators, according to John Seebach, who directs federal river management policy at American Rivers, a group that advocates for the removal of outdated dams.

“They are understandably touchy about someone messing with their infrastructure,” he said.

A 1998 study done for the Department of Energy attempted to tally sites that were not only technically feasible, but which also were not likely to be entangled in legal, environmental or “institutional” complications. It concluded that 5,677 sites nationwide could produce 30,000 additional megawatts.

In Iowa, for example, the authors determined that while there were enough appropriate sites to generate an additional 455 megawatts, only about 305 would be unencumbered by legal, environmental or institutional factors.

Hydropower projects are now underway throughout the Midwest. The Meldahl project, nearing completion in Foster, Kentucky, on a Corps of Engineers dam, will provide power to Hamilton, Ohio, located near Cincinnati. At 105 megawatts, the Meldahl plant will be the largest hydro facility on the Ohio River.

In May, Kaukauna Utilities in Wisconsin dedicated an overhaul and expansion of two hydropower power plants on the Fox River. The combined facility has a capacity of 7 megawatts.

American Municipal Power is developing several dams on the Ohio River in Kentucky and West Virginia, and is currently seeking a license to operate a power plant on the Robert C. Byrd Dam, in a joint project with the utility in Wadsworth, Ohio.

Why hydro?

In August, Missouri River Energy Services, a collection of 61 municipal utilities in the four upper Midwestern states that purchase power together, began construction of the 35-megawatt Red Rock Hydroelectric Project on the Des Moines River in Iowa.

It will be the second-largest hydro plant in the state; the largest, on the Mississippi River near Keokuk, was built in 1913 and still provides power for a Missouri utility.

When the Red Rock plant goes online in 2018, it’s projected to generate about as much power as required by the nearby town of Pella, with a population of about 18,000. The plant is under construction alongside an existing Corps of Engineers dam.

Missouri River Energy Services has preliminary permits to build two other power plants in Iowa, on Corps of Engineers dams on the Mississippi River. The consortium also is pursuing a permit to build a power plant on the Saylorville dam on the Des Moines River.

“Those are a ways away from us, even knowing if we’re going to proceed with them,” said Bill Radio, a spokesman for Missouri River Energy Services.

Why the tilt towards hydro?

“Our members are growing,” Radio said. “It’s a very modest gradual growth, but it is growth. We need to find new resources to provide for those growing needs.

“Secondly, there’s the difficulty today of building anything….you can’t build coal plants, you can’t build nuclear plants,” he said. “You could build natural gas, but the future of them is even questionable.

“So you have to figure out what to replace that with. And of course, there’s a growing number of coal plants being closed down, so there’s a greater need to replace that capacity, and options are very limited.”

Missouri River Energy has access to about 100 megawatts of wind energy and has opted not to seek out more of it, Radio said, because, “When it’s not blowing, you’ve got to have something else. With hydro, you know what you’ve got all the time. It’s a much more attractive option than wind is.”

Governments at both the state and federal level have endorsed and facilitated the development of hydropower in recent years. In April, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a crowd at the annual meeting of the National Hydropower Association that by 2030, the department aims to double hydropower.

As part of his Climate Action Plan, President Barack Obama last year mentioned Iowa’s Red Rock hydro plant as the sort of project the federal government should encourage. In August, 2013, Obama signed a law quickening the licensing process for hydropower plants no larger than 10 MW. It also instructed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to develop strategies for licensing larger hydro plants on non-powered dams in no more than two years. Five or six years is not unusual.

Also in 2013, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill allowing hydro projects, including Red Rock, to receive the same tax credits given to wind projects in the state. At the federal level, Congress in 2005 passed a bill granting to hydropower projects a production tax credit, similar to that granted to wind farms.

Although the bulk of the nation’s hydropower is generated in the Pacific Northwest, its most-accessible remaining potential is concentrated in the Midwest and the South. Construction of new dams inevitably incurs massive resistance, meaning that existing dams without power plants – they number somewhere in the neighborhood of 77,000 – hold out the best promise.

“It makes the most sense to add (power) to Corps of Engineers dams,” said Seebach, of American Rivers. “A lot of those are on streams that are flat like the Mississippi. There are some economies of scale. We should develop hydro on those dams.”

“It’s a great opportunity to get some utility-scale renewables in states where most of the power comes from coal.”

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

5 replies on “Iowa lawmaker wants to ‘take the lead’ on hydropower”