Allegheny County Hydropower

Rendering of hydropower facility at the Emsworth Main Channel Dam

On January 28, 2021, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced that the county has entered into a power purchase agreement with Rye Development to purchase 7.4 MW of renewable electricity from a new low-impact, run-of-river hydroelectric facility to be located on the Ohio River. The 35-year agreement and financial investment makes possible the development and financing of new renewable energy capacity right in the county.

This is an exciting announcement. The county’s leadership means more renewable energy will be generated, creating a path for users to move from reliance on fossil fuels to fully renewable energy. The location of the hydroelectric facility here also means that we can support our local economy and continue to grow the clean energy jobs that has made Allegheny County a leader in that space.

Currently, Allegheny County uses approximately 50,000 MWh of electricity a year for its buildings and operations. The majority of its energy is purchased through a consortium of buyers which shifted in 2021 to making its energy purchases from 100% renewable sources, although many of those sources are not local.

The energy purchased by this agreement and its associated Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) will cover over 90% of the county’s annual load with Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). Combined with the county’s continued enhanced energy efficiency measures, it won’t be long before the county will achieve its goal for 100% renewable energy through local sources.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Hydropower?

Hydropower uses the force of water flowing in streams and rivers to produce mechanical energy.

To learn more, consider some of these resources:

What is a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA)?

A Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is a contract which enables the electricity user to invest in renewable energy at little or no up-front cost and typically results in a fixed energy price that is lower than market rate. Ownership and maintenance of the power generation facility remains with the developer, not the electricity user.

Will the county be building the hydroelectric facility?

No. The county will not be building or operating the facility.

The county has committed to purchasing the power generated at the hydroelectric facility. That commitment is memorialized in a power purchase agreement (PPA) that includes a 35-year term. That agreement can then be used by Rye to secure the financing for the facility.

Does this impact the recreational area on the Ohio River?

The recreational area will not be impacted. Rye will work closely with the Army Corps of Engineers and other partners to ensure that recreational use can continue.

What about the fish and other aquatic life in the river?

Rye will be seeking certification from the Low Impact Hydropower Institute. This certification reflects the facility’s commitment to limit its social and environmental impact. There are eight criteria which must be met by a facility to become certified. They include ecological flow regimes, water quality protection, upstream fish passage, downstream fish passage and protection, shoreline and watershed protection, threatened and endangered species protection, cultural and historic resource protection, and recreational resources.

Learn more about the requirements for certification and the process on the Low Impact Hydropower Institute web site.

This region was built on coal and other fossil fuels. Why not still use those resources?

Nationally, the production of electricity to heat, cool and light buildings contributes to 25% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. CO2 is a heat-trapping (also known as greenhouse) gas. Since the industrial revolution, humans have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by 47%. That concentration, along with other sources and greenhouse gases, has led to global climate change. According to NASA, glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted, and trees are flowering sooner. All of these things cause damage to our environment and are expected to result in such effects as heat waves, heavy downpours and sea level rise. Infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised.

The county has already taken significant steps to reduce its carbon footprint. Between 2015 and 2020, carbon emissions from building energy use dropped by 16% or 5,900 metric tons. That reduction is equivalent to the amount emitted by 1,275 passenger vehicles in one year. The hydropower project is the county’s largest sustainability initiative to date.

Allegheny County is also a proud member of the Pittsburgh 2030 District, a Green Building Alliance initiative started in 2012 that supports area building owners and managers in achieving 50% reductions in energy and water use as well as transportation emissions by the year 2030. The county has five buildings and 1.6 million square feet committed. In 2021, the county has also committed two county parks, White Oak and Deer Lakes, as affiliate members of the 2030 District as part of the Net Zero Energy Parks initiative.

Each year that the agreement is in effect, the county will offset emissions equivalent to the entire electrical consumption of over 3,400 households. Over the life of the agreement, the county’s purchases will offset over 1 million metrics tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, roughly equal to 2.6 billion miles driven in a typical passenger vehicle.

How does the county get its energy now?

Allegheny County is part of an energy consortium that includes the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Zoo, PWSA, SEA, Three Rivers Rowing, Pittsburgh Parking Authority, and some municipalities, as well as others.

The consortium purchases renewable energy credits (RECs) but does not have a lot of local energy options. Instead, they’re often buying state or national RECs.

The county’s announcement is an investment in locally generated renewable energy.

Why not consider solar?

The county did look at solar but found that hydropower was a more reliable source right now – and more plentiful. To generate the same amount of energy as the hydroelectric facility would require the clearing of approximately 165 acres. According to Penn State Extension, there are 80 to 120 trees per acre, meaning that as many as 19,800 trees would need to be cleared to accommodate that much solar.

Will all of the energy generated at the facility be used by the county?

Through the power purchase agreement, the county will buy 40,000 MWh of electricity that will be supplied back into the Duquesne Light power grid. Rye Development will be working with other offtakers for the remaining energy produced by the hydro facility.

What is Rye Development?

Rye Development is a leading U.S. hydropower developer with a current pipeline of over 22 projects in eight states. Rye develops new hydropower on existing dams, in conjunction with its financing partner, the Climate Adaptive Infrastructure Fund. Through its development of new closed loop pumped storage, Rye demonstrates its commitment to the responsible development of untapped hydropower resources while maintaining rivers’ balance of environmental and commercial requirements. Rye brings communities around the country substantial infrastructure, job creation, and a local source of 24/7, reliable, renewable, non-consumptive energy.

Who else will be involved in this project?

The power will be generated at a 17.8 MW hydropower facility to be located at the existing Emsworth Main Channel Dam on the Ohio River. Rye has collaborated with the Army Corps of Engineers (the operator of the existing dam) on the project’s development which requires the Corps’ approval before construction commences. The hydropower project is scheduled to begin construction in late 2021 and is expected to be operational as early as mid-2023.

In April 2019, the county issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for developers of hydro facilities. It was advised by CustomerFirst Renewables, an advisory services firm headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on the project and resulting PPA.

CustomerFirst Renewables is part of an initiative with Sustainable Pittsburgh called Renewable Energy for the Power of 32 (RE4P32). The program serves to build a more balanced, resilient, and clean energy economy for the region.

RE4P32 helps to facilitate renewable energy purchases for large energy consumers. By leveraging the buying power of large energy consumers, either individually or collectively, Renewable Energy for the Power of 32 seeks to increase the benefits of low-cost renewable energy generation in the greater Pittsburgh region.

Will this project create any jobs?

In addition to reducing the impact on the environment with this contract, it is also expected to create green jobs and support the local economy as it continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rye Development anticipates 150-200 jobs during construction. It is about a 2-year construction cycle for this heavy civil infrastructure project. (Think of a 6-story concrete building with 5 ft thick walls built on the bottom of the river.) During operation, it will be highly automated, utilizing two full-time positions. The facility will also have numerous contracts with local companies to provide support and other services.

The indirect job impact will be in the range of 5 to 7 full time equivalents.

What else is the county doing around sustainability?

We’re glad you asked. In late 2019, the county published its first “Citizens Guide to Sustainability(PDF, 2MB).” The report was recently updated and expanded and includes information on efforts around air quality, management of land and water, educating the public, parks as classrooms, clean energy jobs, green cleaning, supporting property owners, cutting utility usage and reducing waste.

Read the 2021 Citizen’s Guide to Sustainability(PDF, 15MB).

Should the county be using taxpayer dollars to fund something like this?

There is a lot of conversation about the importance of using renewable energy, but the supply of such energies is not robust enough to support a large shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The county has talked a lot about sustainability and investing in our future, and this project reflects that commitment.

The power purchase agreement (PPA) allows for the monetization of the project and for the developer to secure financing to move forward with its construction. Without agreements like this, which signify long-term commitments, hydro projects of this scale may not be possible.

This contract by the county demonstrates its leadership and commitment to a sustainable future. With this action, County Executive Fitzgerald has signaled to other stakeholders in the community that this is a sound opportunity.

Is the county going to pay more for energy?

The county will continue to pay the market rate for its current energy needs. As noted previously, the county already purchases energy through a consortium which utilizes renewable energy. Once the hydroelectric facility is completed, it will be several years before there is revenue/expense neutrality.

Averaged out over the term of the contract, and taking into consideration both costs and credits, the cost will be approximately $125,000 per year. The county will pay more in the beginning and then midway through the term that will flip and the credits will exceed the costs. These are all based on estimates. It is difficult to determine the cost of energy 5 months from now, much less 5 years from now. The PPA has an added incentive of providing the county with a fixed rate and stability in its expenses.

This commitment is a long-term investment in the county’s future, and that of its residents.

Did the county do this alone?

No. The county partnered with Rye Development on this project after a competitive procurement process, during which it was advised by CustomerFirst Renewables (CFR), an advisory services firm headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland. CFR has collaborated with Sustainable Pittsburgh through an initiative called Renewable Energy for the Power of 32 (RE4P32).

Renewable Energy for the Power of 32 serves to build a more balanced, resilient, and clean energy economy for the region. It helps to facilitate renewable energy purchases for large energy consumers.

By leveraging the buying power of large energy consumers, either individually or collectively, Renewable Energy for the Power of 32 seeks to increase the benefits of low-cost renewable energy generation in the greater Pittsburgh region.