Low-Impact Hydropower

PEC is working to make permitting of low-impact hydro more efficient, while maintaining important ecosystem and community protections.


Since 2011, PEC has had interest in furthering the use of low-impact hydropower, with a particular focus on existing infrastructure, including existing dams, pipes, and other conveyances. To investigate why there has not been greater development of these resources, we convened the PA Hydropower Summit in 2011, which resulted in a white paper summarizing the current challenges to development. Primary among these is the time and expense associated with state and federal permitting.

Highlights of our work with hydropower in recent years include the following:

  • Permitting Manual- Permitting for hydropower projects is very complex, involving multiple state and federal agencies. This complexity often requires the services of an attorney or consultant. However, the cost associated with permitting may prove to be an insurmountable challenge to many low-impact projects because the small power generation will not produce enough revenue to recoup the costs.

We believe the permitting process can be adjusted to be more efficient and less costly, for both applicants and resource agencies, while maintaining stringent environmental protections. In February 2015, we released the Hydroelectric Permitting Manual for Pennsylvania.

  • Project Finance- While the complexity of permitting and licensing requirements is an identified barrier, access to upfront financing was also identified as a challenge.

Many low-impact projects are at existing dams or water outflows that are often owned by municipalities, water authorities, watershed associations, rural landowners, or other entities that lack upfront capital, access to financing, or a willingness to take on new debt, even for projects that are cost-effective.

To further investigate this issue, we commissioned a study of the current business case for micro-hydro in PA.

Like many alternative energy projects in the state, currently low natural gas prices make it more difficult for hydro projects to be economical. However, energy prices are expected to rise again in the future. Our hope is that our work with permitting and project development will lay the framework for hydropower to compete effectively in the future.

  • Projects— Because of our role in the state and our experience in hydropower, PEC often plays the role of connector in bringing together prospective hydropower developers with the right contacts at regulatory agencies, financiers, and local municipalities.

To fully understand the challenges that face a hydropower project and what could help bring more projects from idea to production, PEC, is also managing feasibility assessments at three Western Pennsylvania state parks, in partnership with DCNR. We hope by gaining first-hand experience we will be better prepared to assist others in bringing projects into production. If these projects are successful, they will serve as models for projects at other state-owned facilities.

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