A catastrophic dam failure at a Michigan hydropower facility this month has left thousands stranded, highlighting the fact that when it comes to clean energy, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. The events were like the stereotypical action movie. Surreal, actually. And if you weren’t living it, it would be nearly impossible to believe…
A deadly Wuhan-originating virus, complete with unknown properties and remedies, makes its way to major U.S. cities. It spreads. The entire economy shuts down, leaving tens of millions of people without work and scrambling to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper—and debt-laden oil companies withering on the vine, threatening the very notion of America’s energy independence.
Then, just as the spread of the virus begins to slow, major rainfall, combined with what could be kindly described as negligence, collapses a hydropower dam, requiring the evacuation of 10,000 residents near Midland, Michigan.
Now, as Midland residents move to sue the dam owner, the latter is pointing fingers at state regulators. Others are placing the blame squarely on FERC, the government body tasked with issuing licenses to generate electricity from dams.
Whoever is at fault, the tragedy raises critical questions of the viability of the renewables segment that has been hailed as the cheapest form of power the world over.
Last week, the Edenville dam in Michigan experienced a catastrophic failure after particularly heavy rains. The dam, which is owned and operated by an independent company Boyce Hydro Power LLC and generates electricity to sell on to utility companies, also holds back Wixom Lake from the Tittabawassee River. About 10,000 mid-Michigan residents were evacuated, and a state of emergency declared. (Make that another state of emergency, as one already exists in Michigan for the coronavirus pandemic.)
The collapse of the dam then triggered another failure of a second dam, the Sanford dam. Then yet another structure, the Poseyville Dike, followed suit. More water, more evacuations.
Midland, home to 42,000 residents, is also home to Dow Chemical, which lies on the banks of the Tittabawassee River, unfortunately positioned downstream from both the Edenville and Sanford dams.
The flooding was thought to be the worst in 500 years.
How much of the disaster can rightfully be pinned on torrential rains is still in question, in part because the dam just wasn’t up to snuff in the first place.
Boyce Hydro’s Edenville Dam
The Edenville dam is a 4.8 MW project that generates and sells electricity to power companies such as Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison. It has been doing so for decades, but there have been major problems with the dam that have gone unattended.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which grants licenses for hydropower projects in the United States, dinged Boyce Hydro for their Edenville dam project decades ago. Yes, decades.
The problem? According to FERC, the project needed to increase its spillway capacity, due to a concern that the project was unable to pass the Probable Maximum Flood, or PMF. This is a metric that defines the largest predictable storm.
Boyce considers that this has been calculated to occur once in a million years. It is likely this belief that has contributed in part to the spillway being capable of handling only half the PMF.
The problem is, we’ve just seen that maximum flood.
When FERC first identified the spillway deficiencies in 1999, the project was owned by Wolverine Power Corp. The project and its license were transferred to Boyce in 2004.
Fast forward twenty years and nothing has been done to increase the project’s spillway capacity. And in fact, FERC suspended Boyce’s license to generate power from the dam in 2018 due to its failure to bring the project into compliance “knowingly and willfully”.
While Boyce appealed the suspension, FERC denied the request, saying in part,
“We have previously concluded that “Boyce Hydro has, for more than a decade, knowingly and willfully refused to comply with major aspects of its license and the Commission’s regulatory regime, with the result that public safety has been put at risk and the public has been denied the benefits, particularly project recreation, to which it is entitled” and that “[t]he record demonstrates that there is no reason to believe that Boyce Hydro will come into compliance; rather, the licensee has displayed a history of obfuscation and outright disregard of its obligations.”
Boyce, however, argues that the local regulatory body pushed Boyce in April to raise water levels in the lake prior to the flooding.
Either way, it is unclear why twenty years of insufficiency spillway was tolerated by either the FERC or by local residents or local regulators. Boyce, for its part, claimed it could not perform the work because it didn’t have the money, nor did it have access to loans to get the money, according to Powermag. While it agreed to commit funds starting in 2010 and earmark them specifically for improvements, Boyce instead produced nothing but more extension requests and stalling.
Economics of hydropower
This calls into the question of economics. If Boyce couldn’t make ends meet for its hydropower project, is it really the lowest cost electricity around?
About 7% of America’s electricity was generated from hydropower in 2017, making it the largest source of renewable energy, according to the NREL. It also accounts for 40% of the nation’s renewable energy. More than 2400 hydropower systems produce this 40% of renewable electricity in the United States, about half of which are operated by private organizations, not electric utilities, according to Idaho National Laboratory.
According to a study conducted by Navigant Consulting and the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), levelized costs for hydropower electricity is roughly 2 cents per kWh. This assumes, however, state and federal incentives, of which there are many.
Levelized Cost of Electricity
The economical nature of hydropower, however, may be less so if plants are allowed to deteriorate, in which case they “may require constant attention and major refurbishment”, according to Dr. Paul Deane, Senior Research Fellow at MaREI, the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine, Environmental Research Institute hosted by the University College Cork.
Most large hydro projects in the US and in Western Europe were built between 1940 and 1970, Deane said, with many smaller projects built before that when environmental regulation and safety standards were more relaxed.
Built in 1925, the Edenville dam was one of these early projects.
“Some of these plants may now require some form of rehabilitation,” according to Deane.
Hydropower and the environment
The environmental aspect of hydropower is also not without blemish. According to the EIA, dams that divert water to run-of-river hydropower plants may obstruct fish migration, change natural water temperatures, alter water chemistry, and change silt loads. These changes often have a cascading effect, which could impact native plants and animals in and around the river.
And the concerns don’t stop there. This recent failure highlights the devastating effects of a dam failure, which came on the back of another major hydropower dam failure in California in 2017, with the Oroville Dam. That failure resulted in a $1.1 billion cost for the emergency response, debris removal, and fixing the spillway structure and overflow channel.
Whatever the ramifications of the Edenville dam failure, it should shine a new light on hydropower regulations, which the renewables industry should support if it hopes to prevent future disasters that could deliver more renewable black eyes in their quest to one day overtake fossil fuels.