Why is PEC Promoting New Dams? (Spoiler Alert: We’re Not)

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You have probably heard PEC staff talking about hydroelectricity (hydro for short) a lot in recent years. With 86,000 miles of rivers and streams and topography that is far from flat in much of the state, it seems Pennsylvania would have an abundant amount of hydro.

Yet, renewable energy work in the state seems to focus more on wind and solar (both of which we love, too). We wanted to understand why this is: Have all the good spots been developed already? Is it not cost effective? Is it too damaging to the environment?

This topic is especially relevant this week as we just released our Hydroelectricity Permitting Manual for Pennsylvania.

First things first, let’s clear the air about a common misconception. When you think of hydro, do you picture a dam? Perhaps a big one, like the Hoover Dam? Most people do. Does that mean PEC is promoting constructing new dams in Pennsylvania?

Lindsay Baxter
Lindsay Baxter

If you know PEC, you know that we’re passionate about outdoor recreation and getting people out on the Pennsylvania’s rivers. But we’re also equally concerned about protecting the water quality of these tremendous resources. What we have learned through our work, though, is that there is plenty of opportunity for hydro development in the Commonwealth that will not adversely impact water quality, safety, and recreational opportunities.

Having trouble picturing what a low-impact, small-hydro project might look like? This short five minute video from PBS’ “News Hour” shows a great example from Colorado.

So to be clear, PEC supports the low-impact hydropower developments, and in particular those at existing infrastructure, like conduit pipes and non-powered dams, as well as hydrokinetic applications that do not require a dam. If the infrastructure is already there and power generating equipment can be added without negatively impacting the environment or surrounding community, it just makes sense.

Hopefully it goes without saying that in instances where an existing dam presents safety, ecological, or recreational challenges, we would never advocate for keeping it in place for power generation purposes. We support the efforts of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, American Rivers, and their partners to remove dams that no longer serve a purpose and/or have negative ecological, safety, and/or recreational impacts.

The guide released this week results in large part from the feedback we received at the 2011 PA Hydropower Summit and through one-on-one interviews with hydro developers and stakeholders. The permitting process can be so complex and multi-faceted that it is really difficult for smaller projects—like those at water treatment plants, parks, or on farms—to navigate.
We are grateful to the staff of the relevant regulatory agencies, particularly the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, for their assistance, as well as to the Penelec Sustainable Energy Fund of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.