The South Pacific Division (SPD) is working to put a portion of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law monies to good use by supporting their regulatory program through training, development of programmatic tools, hiring of new Regional Technical Specialists (RTSs), and tribal nation outreach initiatives.
The funding also supports hiring of new staff to establish and maintain a Regional Technical Support and Execution Center (TREC) to support execution, increased agility, and consistency in program delivery, specifically for BIL projects. SPD is taking advantage of the flexibility they were offered when standing up their respective TREC.
“What this means for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the opportunity to develop the relationships, processes, and technology that will enable USACE Regulatory Program to continue to effectively deliver decisions that balance natural resource protection with the need for progress and economic growth,” says Tori White, SPD’s chief of Operations and Regulatory Division.
“Each USACE Division was given flexibility in establishing their TREC by USACE headquarters,” added White. “So, SPD hired a workload/program manager and team leader at the Division level to oversee the Center and lead a team of regulators in implementing and delivering BIL projects.”
White says SPD is unique in that it has leveraged its Regional Technical Specialists (RTS), or high-level subject matter experts within a district, to provide a minimum 25 percent support to the region. SPD also pulled its existing RTSs into the TREC to ensure agile “support center” staff to provide execution and technical expertise across region.
This support was also extended through the integration of their RTSs from the Tribal Nations Technical Center of Expertise - another distinctive SPD focus. The TNTCX provides a cost-effective administrative tool to improve USACE’s quality and effectiveness in delivering USACE missions and Federal Trust responsibilities to Federally recognized tribes.
“With 182 federally recognized Tribes in SPD’s AOR, having a dedicated Regional Regulatory Tribal Liaison is essential for SPD to meet its tribal trust responsibilities effectively and efficiently,” said White. “So, SPD pulled its a tribal liaison from the Albuquerque District Tribal Nations Technical Center of Expertise to support not only the TREC but the entire regional regulatory program.”
Mark Gilfillan, a senior tribal liaison with USACE SPD, sees the value and long-term benefits of this initiative by the division.
“Knowing that SPD covers an area of at least 10 states and 182 Tribal Nations, the tribal land areas within SPD AOR alone constitute more than 50% of all Indian Tribes within the contiguous 48 states;” said Gilfillan. “Therefore, throughout all of our SPD Missions and business line areas, there is a great need and an advantage to having a RTS for tribal actions and attention. The TNTCX is vital to the successful management of our relationships with Tribal Nations, which helps us maintain and operate key infrastructure projects that contribute to the Nation’s economy, environment, safety, and quality of life - now and in the future.”
Gilfillan also sees how the integration of the RTSs is critical to serving this often-unseen community and relishes in his opportunity to be part of this change.
“My favorite part is providing tools to meet the task, within the given timeframes, procedures, program limits, and work regimen, we all have today. However, as a tribal liaison, it is equally important to bring forward the tribal concerns and needs for consideration. Tribal communities are often some of the most deserving, but underserved areas of our Nation.”
The TNTCX is currently preparing a scope of work for SPD to address strategic tribal communications, outreach, and treaty rights including development of a GIS based tool for Regulators, adds White.
SPD is also developing an Environmental Justice Principles for the Regional Regulatory Program. Environmental Justice is the fair and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, national origin, or income regarding the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies, with no group bearing a disproportionate burden of environmental harms and risks.
“These initiatives align with SPD commander’s priorities and the SPD vision for delivering bold solutions to serve and strengthen all communities,” said White.
When thousands of gallons of water flow through a dam, it generates a lot of force and power.
But what happens when you harness that power? You could provide electricity to a community or two, of course.
Recently, a developer announced they will construct four new hydropower plants at locking facilities on all three major rivers in the greater Pittsburgh region.
“Partnering with developers to provide hydropower to the community is an important function,” said Benjamin Sakmar, the hydropower coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. “Especially in this day and age, the push for renewable energy is getting a lot of focus. We want to be good partners with companies looking to provide hydropower construction within the district.”
Rye Development, a developer of low-impact renewable hydropower generation, will construct facilities at Emsworth Locks and Dams on the Ohio River, at Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4, also known as Charleroi, and at the Allegheny River Locks and Dam 2.
“The Pittsburgh region has some of the most productive low impact run of river hydroelectric opportunities available in the U.S.” said Ushakar Jha, vice president for project engineering at Rye. “The economic benefit of constructing these projects will be felt by the local labor force in the region.”
The Pittsburgh District already has nine licensed and operating hydropower plants at their federal facilities, including five at locks and dams and four at reservoirs. Private industries or local governments run the plants to provide electricity to residents.
“Hydropower uses a resource that we have plenty of in our region: water,” Sakmar said. “We have the ideal topography, which channels the flow of water into our rivers and into our reservoirs. Some of our projects have been around for 100 years, so they already have energy built up, ready to harness with hydropower plants.”
Generally, hydropower plants work the same way on the river as at reservoirs. They take the force from water flow to spin large turbines connected to generators, transforming mechanical energy into electricity.
“The market in this region is incredibly advantageous from a power-offtake standpoint. These are some of the most productive projects with a clear line to commercial operation,” Jha said.
The capacity of each project will vary, but Rye estimates the four facilities will generate 250,000 megawatt hours annually for the next 100 years or more, enough to power 25,000 households per year.
Once construction for a new hydropower plant begins, completion may take 24 to 36 months. Rye has not yet set a date for breaking ground.
“The Pittsburgh District is critical to realizing these projects,” Jha said. “We are excited to work with the district moving forward, and this effort represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Pittsburgh region.”
The Emsworth location will host two hydropower plants because of its two dams. Emsworth is adjacent to Neville Island, located on the main channel of the Ohio River, just downstream from downtown Pittsburgh. Allegheny County has entered into a power purchase agreement with Rye to supply renewable electricity to the county from the Emsworth Project.
The Allegheny River Lock and Dam 2 is next to the Highland Park Bridge. The project will provide the University of Pittsburgh with on-demand, locally generated renewable power.
The Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4 at Charleroi is finishing up a significant construction project to enlarge a chamber that began nearly 20 years ago. Rye will pursue hydropower construction sometime after the chamber is complete.
The constructor expects each project to generate 150-200 family wage jobs. In addition to providing renewable energy, some facilities include investment in new recreational fishing sites and a walkway leading from a parking area with designated parking spaces to the fishing platform.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not select the locations for new hydropower plants. Developers – whether private companies or local governments looking to provide power to their citizens – choose sites based on economic factors. Namely, they determine whether licensing, designing, planning, and constructing a hydropower plant will produce enough power for enough customers to remain in business.
“Choosing a hydropower site all boils down to economics,” Sakmar said. “Developers need to be sure choosing a location is going to be economical and profitable for them. Sometimes that includes making sure they have buyers for their electricity and investors ahead of time.”
Even though the Pittsburgh District operates 23 locks and dams and 16 reservoirs, only nine of those locations have hydropower plants in operation. Together, they have the potential to produce 570 megawatts, able to power 670,000 households per year.
In addition to the nine already in place, Rye and other developers have licensed 12 total hydropower facilities yet to be constructed.
Developers who want to build a hydropower facility must submit their plans through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC has the authority to decide whether a developer can build and operate a hydropower facility at a requested location. In addition, FERC performs environmental reviews to ensure facilities will not degrade the environment. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assists with design reviews at various planning stages.
“We work with the developer every step of the way,” Sakmar said. “We make sure a new facility isn’t going to cause any undue risk to our infrastructure, the public, water quality or the environment.”
Hydropower has several environmental requirements to maintain quality downstream, including water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and flow.
Safety and impact on water operations are other important factors. The Pittsburgh District does not change its outflow projections at reservoirs or locking facilities to produce more electricity. Instead, the district determines outflow at reservoirs according to its mission to reduce the risk of flooding, keep river navigation flowing and meet specific water quality projections.
“Our primary mission is to protect lives and support inland navigation. We want to make sure new hydropower plants are not going to impair the mission for why our dams were built in the first place,” Sakmar said.
Reviewing a proposed plan and licensing each facility can take several years before construction can begin. It can be a long, arduous process, but one that helps ensure the quality of the nations’ waters while boosting local economies.
“Partnership with developers is key to transitioning our dams to meet 21st century needs,” Sakmar said. “Each of these partnerships we have with developers is beneficial in harnessing resources and energy we already have, rather than trying to depend on non-renewable materials. This is just one little piece of the puzzle to help solve the overall energy needs we’re all looking to navigate.”