A remarkable story recently came to my attention that illustrates how working together toward a common goal can lead to wonderful results. It takes place on the White River in Arkansas. Three new small hydropower plants – known collectively as the White River Hydroelectric Project – began operating on this river in 2006 and 2007. While the building of such plants is not, in itself, especially remarkable, what is notable is the level of community commitment and cooperation that led to this outcome.
Together, these hydro plants provide 12.5 MW of clean, renewable power – large enough to supply a substantial portion of the electricity needs of the community that developed the plants. In the larger scheme of things, the plants are truly a gift – a legacy – from one generation to another. At this point, it is relatively unimportant that it took more than 25 years to get these plants built.
Around 1980, some local citizens in Batesville, Ark., started working together on the idea of establishing a “river heritage” center. Batesville, the seat of government in Independence County, has a population of about 9,500 and is Arkansas’ oldest city (it was first settled around 1810). The White River runs through the city and is held to be its most important natural resource, providing – now and through the years – food, water, navigation, and recreation.
In the early 1980s, the oil crises of the prior decade were a fresh memory, and hydropower held renewed stature as a source of domestically produced, renewable energy. As a consequence, hundreds of new small hydro projects were built.
In Batesville, it did not take long for the initial idea for a heritage center to be expanded to include the addition of hydro plants at nearby locks and dams. These facilities, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1900s, primarily for navigation, were no longer needed for that purpose.
Working together, Independence County and the city of Batesville sought and received preliminary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the addition of hydroelectric plants at three locks and dams. The permits were issued in 1981; the licenses allowing construction were issued in 1985 and 1986. However, before the plants could be built, numerous obstacles had to be overcome. Among these obstacles were the following:
– A regional power surplus in the late 1980s and 1990s caused power rates to plummet, making the projects economically infeasible. Solution: Wait for higher rates, and redesign a “slimmed down” project to reduce the cost of power. The capacity of the as-built project is only 55% of the capacity of the original design.
– “Timing out” on FERC deadlines for beginning construction. Solution: Get annual renewals from FERC and, ultimately, timetable relief through legislative action by the U.S. Congress. Key project champions included former U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, former U.S. Congressman Bill Alexander, and current U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln, all from Arkansas.
– Inability to sell the produced electricity locally, owing to monopoly franchise restrictions. Solution: Make a deal with a municipal utility – Clarksville, Ark., 160 miles west of Batesville – for purchase of the power, and arrange for the Southwestern Power Administration, a federal agency, to deliver the power.
The new White River plants are part of a venerable hydropower tradition – that of providing clean, economical electricity for a very long time. Dozens of hydro plants continue to operate after more than a century of service. With reasonable care, the new White River facilities can be expected to furnish power that benefits multiple generations of citizens.
The foregoing is just part of the story. In an upcoming issue of Hydro Review, we’ll provide you with more information about the development of the White River Hydroelectric Project.
Happy Birthday, Hydropower
On September 30, 2007, the hydroelectric industry celebrates its 125th birthday. On that date in 1882, the first built-for-purpose hydroelectric plant began operating in Appleton, Wis.