Nearly two centuries ago, the Lehigh Valley’s canals began transporting coal as part of an extensive waterway network that brought fuel from northeast Pennsylvania to the Eastern Seaboard.
Now those canals could be used again to provide energy, this time as a green, renewable source.
A Massachusetts company, New England Hydropower Co., wants to build and manage small hydroelectric plants to harness energy from three legacy dams along the Lehigh Valley’s two major streams.
The state has already pledged taxpayer dollars to one project, at the Chain Dam along the Lehigh River in Easton, and New England Hydropower is looking into two more prospective generator sites in the Lehigh Valley. They are at the Ground Hog Lock, south of Easton along the Delaware Canal in Williams Township, and on the Lehigh Canal in Allentown.
Combined, the projects could provide an average annual generation of 9,500 megawatt-hours, or enough electricity to power 1,300 homes, according to company spokesman Chris Conover, using calculations from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Privately owned New England Hydropower hopes to complete work on the first hydro plant in 2021, according to Conover. He said the three sites are in the early stages of development, and those plans could change.
The state in March approved a $1.4 million grant for New England Hydropower’s Chain Dam project. The Chain Dam sits along the Lehigh River next to Easton’s picturesque Hugh Moore Park, which includes the National Canal Museum.
Northampton County pledged to match the state funding via a low interest loan, and the company intends to seek private financing for the balance of the estimated $6 million project. The state money required a municipal partner to provide a match, which led the county to pledge up to $1.5 million. County Council voted 7-2 in July 2018 to be a partner.
Officials with knowledge of the Valley proposals are enthused by New England Hydropower’s groundwork and the prospects of harnessing the power of local streams to generate electricity for area homes and offices.
“The thing that appealed to the county was you are taking a canal used for tourism, and applying the old technology in an industrial quarter with modern, renewable energy,” said Steve Barron, Northampton County fiscal affairs director. Barron said he toured New England Hydropower’s first hydroelectric plant, in Meriden, Connecticut.
Conover said the technology used by New England Hydropower can be found in some 300 plants across Europe.
Power from a ‘simple’ technology
New England Hydropower’s proposals for each Lehigh Valley plant feature an Archimedes’ screw turbine. It is a more than 2,000-year-old technology named for the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes, producing power by moving water from the top of a dam or river, which causes the screw to rotate. Energy is extracted by an electrical generator connected to a shaft.
“It is very simple [technology], and it could be a way to care for the canals,” said Allen Sachse, former executive director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, which includes Hugh Moore Park and the area at the Ground Hog Lock.
Sachse, who said he is a paid, part-time adviser to New England Hydropower, and other officials say that if the Chain Dam plant were to be built, for example, the company would need to maintain the local canals to ensure water flows.
Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure said in 2018 the company has committed to restoring the Hugh Moore canal system, because installation would require it to be reinforced, refurbished and in some cases redesigned.
He also said, in April, that the county’s loan could be paid back through the sale of power produced by the Chain Dam. In Meriden, according to New England Hydropower, the plant saves the city $20,000 per year in power and property taxes.
Barron, the county’s fiscal affairs director, said the county does not yet have an agreement with New England Hydropower on receiving funds from the Chain Dam project.
“There have been no pledges from NEHC at this time except to build the hydropower plant,” he said.
Conover, who said he did not know the specifics of the loan, said the company would make good if it would have to repay the loan in full, because a hydroelectric system can last years.
“These are not short term,” he said.
But at least one environmental group is concerned about the potential impact of the project.
“It is incredibly disappointing that state and local officials are putting time, energy and taxpayer dollars into projects that have the potential to hurt our rivers and wildlife when there are clean, 100% renewable energy alternatives, like wind and solar, which should be prioritized instead,” said Flora Cardoni of PennEnvironment.
Cardoni said the Delaware is one of the region’s few remaining large rivers free from dams.
“It is crucial to protect the ecological, recreational, and aesthetic beauty of the river so that it can continue to flow freely,” she said.
Conover said the company’s projects, given their scope, would retain the qualities of the area rivers as well as “preserve the historic value of the sites.” He said the work is in line with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s directives on renewable energy.
For the Hugh Moore Park project, he said: “We’re looking forward to working with the consultants to make sure it would not impact the canal boat, or the boat running.”
Meriden officials said New England Hydropower’s plant has not had any negative impacts from the city’s perspective.
New England Hydropower
New England Hydropower, which began in 2012, opened its first and only facility in 2017 at a dam along the Quinnipiac River in Meriden, according to Conover.
But media reports show the 20-ton Archimedes’ screw was left inoperable for about half of 2018 after a malfunction.
“They had an issue with the generator itself,” said Brian Ennis, a Meriden engineer. A fast-turning screw, he said, damaged the generator, but didn’t affect the dam, which is owned by the city.
Conover said a delay in getting repair parts contributed to the lengthy stoppage. “We weathered it,” he said.
Asked what would happen if New England Hydropower’s Lehigh Valley projects did not function as designed, Conover called the question “speculation.”
In submitting its proposals to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, New England Hydropower has three years to evaluate the feasibility of the projects, Conover said.
FERC has given preliminary approvals for the two Easton-area projects, spokeswoman Celeste Miller said. The Allentown hydro proposal is pending agency review for a preliminary permit. The proposed plants would also fall under the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regulatory oversight, according to spokeswoman Colleen Connolly, and they would need various local approvals. For example, Easton owns the Hugh Moore property, so City Council would also have to approve the project.
New England Hydropower’s proposed plants are considered small; the Meriden plant generates 920,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. By comparison, the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border generates, on average, about 4 billion kilowatt-hours of power each year — enough to serve 1.3 million people.
Hydroelectric represents 7% of U.S. power production, according to the “2019 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook” by Bloomberg NEF.
Pennsylvania has about 900 megawatts of conventional hydropower, with nearly 1,600 megawatts of storage hydropower capacity, and hundreds of people employed in the hydroelectric field, according to the state DEP.
Conover said it was too soon to say who would buy power generated in the Lehigh Valley, but said it could go on PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission grid that covers Pennsylvania, all or part of 12 other states and the District of Columbia.
Andrew Levitt of PJM said federal law gives small-scale, independent power producers options of selling the power directly to a utility or to a regional transmission operator such as PJM, which is based in Montgomery County.
Lehigh Valley’s hydro history
The Chain Dam and Ground Hog Lock — off Route 611 at the Theodore Roosevelt recreation area along the Delaware Canal in Williams Township — previously served as power sources for industry. Ground Hog Lock had a hydroelectric generating plant that powered a paper company and the Philadelphia and Easton Transit Co. for a trolley line, according to the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. Pennsylvania Power & Light (now PPL) bought the generating plant in 1928 and operated it until it was abandoned in 1954.
“It’s sort of like bringing that history back with the modern, green technology,” Sachse said.
More recently, Allentown has seen hydroelectric plant proposals go through the permitting process without success.
FERC twice issued approvals to the city for hydroelectric projects at a concrete dam on the Lehigh under Hamilton Street, including in the late 1980s and in 2013, according to New England Hydropower. Both times, the city pulled out, the company said in its filing with FERC on the latest Allentown project.
Donald Bernhard, who was Allentown’s community development director during the 1980s, said city officials decided to cancel the earlier proposal over residents’ objections and FERC’s review process, which he said went “like a big pinata, and everybody takes a swing.”
“Even though I thought hydro was good, clean power, you can’t generate power from any source without some impact,” said Bernhard, who is now executive director of the Downtown Allentown Community Development Initiative.
Allentown officials have met with New England Hydropower representatives about the most recent proposal, said Karen El-Chaar, the city’s parks and recreation director.
“We’re open to possibilities and at least dialogue, and to see what comes out of the feasibility studies,” El-Chaar said.
The Delaware River project in Williams Township is on land owned by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Chain Dam canal is also state-controlled, though the city owns Hugh Moore Park.
Conover said company officials have had preliminary talks with department representatives. Spokesman Terry Brady said the agency asked for additional information from New England Hydropower.
“We also stressed strong concerns about the historical significance of that park,” Brady said of Hugh Moore.