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Allegheny County will power its facilities with hydroelectric power under a 35-year agreement with a planned plant on a nearby river.
By 2023, government buildings in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania will be powered by a decidedly local source: the Ohio River.
More specifically, a low-impact hydropower plant on the river. The facility—a 17.8-megawatt hydroelectric plant at the Emsworth Locks and Dams—will be financed and constructed by Rye Development, a Boston-based corporation that signed a 35-year agreement to sell the resulting renewable power to the county.
County officials got the idea from the University of Pittsburgh, which signed its own hydropower agreement with Rye in 2018.
“It kind of sparked that interest for us,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “We called them to see if we could join in, but they had already taken all of the energy for their campus, so we started looking into potentially building another facility on one of our other dams.”
Construction on the facility is expected to begin this year, with the plant scheduled to come online sometime in 2023. The facility, which will not be operated by the county, will stand roughly two stories above the water. Once completed, it should last for up to a century, and will not impact recreational use of the river, Fitzgerald said.
“It’s non-impactful, especially as compared to the other renewable energy options,” he said. “Let’s say, for example, that we wanted to generate the amount of electricity we need for our county buildings with solar power. We’d have to use about 165 acres of land, so if you did that in a park or a forested area, you’d be taking out 20,000 trees. Hydro, on a large scale, is really the best way to do it.”
The county currently uses around 50,000 megawatt hours per year for buildings and operations, including park facilities, office space and a jail. Switching to hydroelectric power will offset emissions equivalent to the electrical consumption of more than 3,400 households each year, Fitzgerald said. After 35 years, the agreement will offset more than 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, roughly the same as 2.6 billion miles driven by an average car.
The county will purchase around half of the electricity generated by the plant; the rest will be sold to other customers, said Paul D. Jacob, CEO of Rye Development.
“With this action, County Executive Fitzgerald has signaled to other stakeholders in the community that new hydropower on existing dams will provide 24/7 renewable energy while also resulting in local infrastructure investment,” he said in a statement.
Purchasing hydroelectric power will cost the county around $125,000 more per year than traditional fossil fuels, some of which could potentially be offset by grants or federal incentives. Either way, Fitzgerald said, the county views it as a smart way to tackle the carbon footprint of its facilities.
“Commercial buildings typically contribute 25% of the carbon footprint to the environment,” he said. “By doing this, we’re dealing with a significant portion of that.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.