Energy Innovation

PEC is helping to shape Pennsylvania’s energy future through the advancement of low-impact hydropower, geothermal energy, grid modernization, and other innovations.

Low-Impact Hydropower

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.

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

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.

Geothermal Energy

Starting in 2011, in conjunction with other revitalization efforts in downtown Johnstown, PEC established a project team to explore potential use of polluted mine water for a closed-loop geothermal system to produce heating and cooling for one or more customers. A preliminary assessment of project potential identified a large, institutional customer with interest in purchasing heating and cooling from the proposed system. The revenue generated by selling the heating and cooling would allow for the treatment of abandoned mine drainage (AMD), which could eliminate the discharge at the Point in downtown Johnstown, which produces a noxious odor that detracts from community improvement efforts and negatively impacts the Connemaugh Watershed.

An investment grade assessment completed in 2015, found that while the project was technically viable, it was not economically feasible, in part because the proposed customer was already running its heating and cooling system at maximum efficiency, thus reducing the potential for cost-savings. Fortunately, this same customer is planning a new construction project, which will also be located above the mine pool. It will be much more cost-effective to integrate the use of geothermal into the new building than to retrofit the existing systems. Without this study, geothermal would not have been a part of future construction plans, but now is under strong consideration.

The geothermal system would reduce annual electricity use by 8 percent, resulting in an annual cost savings of more than $230,000.
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