Pitt gets a power-up with hydroelectric energy


Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Allegheny River Lock and Dam No. 2 below the Highland Park bridge, which will produce an estimated 50,000 megawatt hours of power a year.

By Emily Drzymalski, Staff Writer

Within three years, Pitt plans to use a system in which hydroelectricity powers more than a quarter of its energy usage. This will be done through a partnership with the Boston-based hydroelectric engineering firm Rye Development.

Pitt signed a power purchase agreement with Rye Development to buy 100 percent of the energy produced by Rye’s planned low-impact hydroelectric plant, which will be constructed on the already existing Allegheny Lock and Dam 2. The plant, Allegheny Lock and Dam 2 are projected to be finished and generating power by 2022, and will be located below the Highland Park Bridge fewer than five miles from Pitt’s campus — a fact Dr. Aurora Sharrard, director of Pitt Sustainability, is looking forward to.

“Partnering with a facility that is going to be less than five miles from campus is a very unique thing that doesn’t necessarily manifest itself every day,” Sharrard said.

Rye Development owns eight permits for low-impact hydropower facilities on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in and around Pittsburgh. According to Sharrard, Rye has been in contact with many businesses and organizations in southwest Pennsylvania, but Pitt was the first to agree.

“Rye has [been] trying to partner with a number of local institutions, companies [and] organizations to buy the electricity from these facilities, and the University of Pittsburgh was the first one to actually sign a contract with Rye to do so,” Sharrard said.

Sharrard stated that there are three energy and emissions goals in the sustainability plan for 2030. Pitt plans to reduce both energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent of the national baseline and Pitt’s 2008 baseline, respectively. In addition, Pitt also plans to produce and procure 50 percent of electricity through renewable resources and strive toward climate neutrality.

Although Sharrard believes there is much to look forward to with the completion of the hydroelectric plant, she upholds there is still much to be done to help Pitt reach its 2030 goals.

“There are lots of exciting things about this hydropower facility,” Sharrard said, “But it’s not going to be on campus and we’re certainly not going to stop here.”

According to Sharrard, if the plant operates at its full capacity, as it is expected to, it will generate about 25 percent of Pitt’s electricity or 50,000 megawatt hours of power a year. This is in line with Pitt’s commitment to having 50 percent of its energy come from renewable resources by 2030.

“We’re choosing water, [of] which we have an abundance in this region,” Sharrard said. “We all know the rivers are there, that they flow regularly. We have the wettest year on record last year. And we’re just going to have more water in the region, and so the University is seeing that and wanting to take advantage of it.”

Rich Heller, senior manager of Electrical Utilities and Energy Initiatives at Pitt, explained that the electricity will be generated by the river’s natural flow through the plant’s turbines. For this reason, Heller described hydroelectricity as being a reliable and obtainable source of energy for Pitt.

“It generates more than solar or wind even because it is a constant, the river never stops flowing,” Heller said, “You’re generating 24/7.”

However, the flow of the river will cause a fluctuation in energy according to the season, Heller said, comparing spring’s wetter trends from melted snow and frequent rain to summer’s dry, hot days.

The plant, designed by Rye, was licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as a low-impact hydroelectric facility. According to Heller, to be licensed as low impact by FERC there has to be a minimal effect on the environment where the plant is being built.

“That FERC license protects the local ecology, the water quality, the fish passage, any threatened and endangered species,” Heller said, “Because this is an existing dam, all that was very low.”

Pitt’s movement toward renewable energy resources, like hydroelectricity, is a part of the 2030 sustainability plan. Joe Miksch, director of Media Relations, described the importance of setting goals for sustainable practices in an email.

“Sustainable energy is important to our future,” Miksch said in an email, “Electricity generation accounts for about half of the University’s [greenhouse gas] emissions, making the addition of sustainable energy, such as hydropower, an important part of Pitt’s continuing progress toward those goals.”