Trend Watch: Wisconsin Electric To Upgrade Century-Old Hydroelectric Power Plants

hearthstone electric house photo

Heathstone. One of the first US homes powered by commercially distributed electricity. Image credit:Wikipedia.

One of the earliest examples of a home powered by a commercial power station is located in Appleton Wisconsin. The house, called "Hearthstone," is a museum piece; but, in 1882 the 12.5kW DC hydroelectric plant it was connected to ran papers mills, and was the source of much hope about the future. Although commercial hydroelectric plants no longer sell direct current, numerous Century-old hydroelectric facilities, orders of magnitude larger in capacity, and generating reliable "base load" AC current, are scattered throughout the US. Many of them would benefit from upgrading to far more efficient, contemporary turbine designs. Typical of the upgrade trend, Wisconsin Power and Light (WPL) announced plans to inspect and upgrade 40MW worth of old hydroelectric plants on the nearby Wisconsin River. Details downstream.WisBusiness carried the press release from which this is clipped:

"We're planning to invest significantly in our hydroelectric facilities over the coming years so that they are available to produce "green" power for the next several generations of our customers," said John Larsen, Alliant Energy Vice President of Generation. "Alliant Energy is committed to the economic development of the Prairie du Sac, Sauk City and Wisconsin Dells areas and keeping these dams in good condition will continue to benefit the region and the State of Wisconsin."

Both dams played and continue to play a critical role in encouraging tourism and promoting economic development in south-central Wisconsin with their long histories that trace back to the early 1900s and the beginnings of WPL.

What underlies the hydrdoelectric upgrading trend? Well, to begin with, PennEnergy reports on the potential to get much more clean, green power by upgrading existing hydroelectic plants:
Chu said the industry could add 70,000 megawatts of capacity by installing more efficient turbines at existing dams, increasing the use of pumped-storage projects, and encouraging the use of run-of-the-river turbines.

"We will be pushing this," Chu said. "We're not talking about a lot of large, new reservoirs. Just work with what we have and it's a massive amount of power."

Two other "drivers" are insurance providers and Cap & Trade legislation.

The cost of premiums rise unless dam safety is ensured.

Perhaps the most important factor is the prospect of Cap & Trade putting a premium price on electricity generated with fossil fuel. Hydro will only become more profitable as coal and gas fired power have increased costs attached. What's not to like about upgrading operations that will become more profitable as the years go by? It represents investing in a future filled with hope - less coal smoke.

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