A nonprofit rural electric cooperative wants to install hydropower at four Delaware River Basin reservoirs.
The Delaware County Electric Cooperative (DCEC) submitted its license application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in May. The "Western Catskills Hydro Project" proposes hydroelectric turbines at the Neversink Dam in Sullivan County, the Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoirs in Delaware County and the Gilboa Dam on the Schoharie Reservoir, in Schoharie County.
The reservoirs are owned and operated by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to supply drinking water to New York City.
The DEP is on the fence about the project. "We're trying to determine how we're going to go on this," said Paul Rush, DEP Deputy Commissioner for water supply. There are five hydroelectric power plants already operating on the city's water supply system, including one on the Neversink in Grahamsville. Those plants are located in DEP diversion tunnels, not on the dams, as the DCEC project proposes.
Rush acknowledged the "greener" benefits of hydropower and the public appeal of a nonprofit cooperative. "Rural electricity: That's like mom and pop, apple pie and all those other good things."
DCEC is one of 900 rural electric cooperatives across the country and among four in the State of New York. Customers own shares in the enterprise and elect a board of directors. DCEC draws its 5,100 members from Delaware, Schoharie, Otsego and Chenango counties.
"We purchase our power on a wholesale basis," said CEO Greg Starheim. "Several years ago, we decided to make a conscious effort to explore local renewable developments in electric generation."
The Delhi-based cooperative already buys 75 percent of its electricity from hydropower at Niagara Falls, Starheim said. The rest is primarily natural gas. Tapping into New York's reservoir system would offer another alternative. Its existing power lines are located near the dams. "It would be very easy for us to interconnect those facilities," Starheim said.
The project would generate up to 63 total megawatts of electricity from the sites, producing enough power to keep the lights on in about 20,000 homes, according to DCEC.
Environmental concerns are sure to dog the process, particularly the needs of fish living around the reservoirs. "Temperature of the water is a really big (concern,)" said Rush. "The water has to be released cold."
If the proper precautions are taken, environmental scientists say a small-scale hydropower project should not be controversial. "Any sort of energy project is going to have environmental impacts," said John Rogers, senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Adding hydropower to an existing dam, he said, is one of the lowest-impact alternatives.
The federal application process could take years to flesh out. If approved, DCEC hopes to begin construction in 2012 and start operating by 2013.