Hydropower is usually seen as a form of energy that's relatively friendly to the environment. But a proposal to build a small hydro-electric plant on an old dam in the Cuyahoga River has set off a storm of controversy. Government officials and local residents fear tapping the river for power would harm aquatic wildlife and degrade water quality. Of equal concern is the construction damage to endangered species habitat in the Summit County metropark where the dam is located. Meanwhile, the developer says his company wants to make the project as eco-friendly as possible. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
90.3 at 9: Dam Show (September 6, 2005);
Hydro-Electric Plant Proposed for Summit County Metropark (July 21, 2005)
The sound of falling water draws thousands of visitors a year to this overlook of the Edison Gorge Dam in Gorge Metropark, nestled in a narrow valley of the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls. The view is breathtaking, but not entirely natural. Once water fell in cascading sheets over a natural falls. But in 1912 a dam was built here to provide a cooling pool for an upstream coal-fired power plant, followed shortly after by a small hydro plant below the dam. Both are now long-abandoned. Today the view is one of multiple technologies from different eras. In addition to the dam there's a long metal pipe from a failed 1990's experiment to test the viability of small hydro-electric production on the Cuyahoga.
David Sinclair: What we'd like to do - and we've offered as part of the project - is that we'll remove this.
David Sinclair is a former employee of the company that tried to test hydro in the 90's, then went bankrupt. He's also president of Advanced Hydro Solutions, the start-up company based in the Akron-suburb of Fairlawn that's proposing to build a new plant on the Edison Gorge Dam. The plant would generate about 2.2 MW of electricity per year, about enough to power a thousand homes.
David Sinclair: We see the dam as an asset sitting there. And if we can put it back to work and have it create green energy for us, for our society, while it's not a large project it still makes a positive contribution.
What Sinclair is proposing is to tap an existing hole in the dam to power two turbines located in a new powerhouse a few hundred yards downstream. To build it, workers would have to bulldoze a service road down a heavily-wooded slope to a narrow shelf of land by the river. Sinclair says he'll do what he can to avoid cutting older trees. But that's where Summit County parks Natural Resource Director Mike Johnson draws the line.
Mike Johnson: I mean, just imagine a hydro plant about 800-1,000 feet down there, a road built on that steep slope and four-acres of forest over there gone.
Johnson says when the land was given to parks in 1930, a deed restriction apparently reserved the dam and its access - owned today by FirstEnergy Corporation - for future hydro development. Hydro Solutions has already applied for a license for its project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. At the first public FERC meetings in July, Johnson outlined some of the environmental impact studies he believes the company should undertake.
Among Johnson's concerns are impacts to federally-endangered plant species such as northern monkshood, which has recently seen a comeback elsewhere in the park. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources agrees on the need for a full environmental study, as does the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
But the fundamental concern for federal and state agencies and hundreds of local residents is the impact to water quality caused by the project and by the dam itself. In fact, many would prefer to see the project scrapped and the dam removed. Steve Tuckerman, a water expert with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, says the state has a federal mandate to consider removal of dams on the Cuyahoga.
Steve Tuckerman: We've invested billions with a 'B,' billions of dollars in water quality to restore the Cuyahoga River. And the amount of hydroelectric power that's generated from that plant I don't believe offsets the investment of the public dollars.
Tuckerman says reducing the flow of a section of the river for hydro-electric generation would stress fish and increase concentrations of pollution. Just this month the Ohio EPA announced that projected impairments to water quality mean the agency will not be able to issue the environmental permit the company needs to build the Edison dam plant. But the federal licensing process has begun and there's no sign at this point that Hydro Solutions intends to pull out. In fact, David Sinclair says he's willing to work closely with park officials.
David Sinclair: We really want to take every step we possibly can to make this as unobtrusive as possible into the park environment. We want to be a socially-responsible company.
But for the park's Mike Johnson, there's a bigger concern. That's the future of the dam - and the Cuyahoga - itself.
Mike Johnson: If they build that plant we can't even talk about removal for fifty years.
FERC officials say dam removal is something they're not empowered to consider. And dam owner FirstEnergy has made no offers to tear it down, a project that could cost more than $30 million. Over the next two years, federal regulators will direct Hydro Solutions to conduct a range of environmental, economic and social impact studies. In the meantime, federal officials say there'll be plenty of opportunity for public input. In Cuyahoga Falls, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.