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Pitt’s hydropower plans spark a new clean power commitment

  • Our City/Our Campus
  • Sustainability

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County has agreed to purchase clean local hydropower to provide electricity for county government facilities.

The county has signed a purchase agreement with Boston-based Rye Development LLC, which plans to construct a 17.8 megawatt hydropower plant on the Ohio River just downstream of its origin at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in Pittsburgh. Power in excess of the county’s needs will be sold to other customers.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced the 35-year deal at a Jan. 28 online media conference.

“This is a landmark day for our county,” he said. “This announcement renews our commitment to the environment, our commitment to addressing climate change and is an investment in our future generations.”

Construction of the privately-funded $50 million facility at the Emsworth Locks and Dam is expected to begin later this year, creating 150-200 construction jobs, said Rye CEO Paul Jacob. Two full-time workers will be needed to staff the plant, which could begin generating power by 2023.

Fitzgerald cited Pitt’s commitment to local hydropower in announcing the county’s decision to follow suit. The University of Pittsburgh was the first in the region to partner with Rye on a plan to harness the flow of Pittsburgh’s rivers to produce clean, reliable electric power.

In 2018, Pitt signed a letter of intent to purchase 100 percent of the power from a low-impact hydroelectric plant Rye plans to build on the Allegheny River at the existing Allegheny Lock and Dam No. 2 near the Highland Park Bridge. The University quickly followed up with a formal 20-year power purchase agreement.

That facility is expected to begin operating in 2023 and will generate about 50,000 megawatt hours of electric power annually—enough to meet about 25 percent of the Pittsburgh campus’ needs.

“The University of Pittsburgh is excited to have been the regional pioneer in partnering with Rye Development for future low-impact hydropower on our three rivers,” said Pitt Sustainability Director Aurora Sharrard.

“In a region that is water dependent, it’s both natural and smart to benefit from the flow of our rivers for clean power in the heart of the city,” she said.

“Pitt looks forward to partnering with Rye, Allegheny County and others to further showcase, educate about, and research low-impact hydropower in the Pittsburgh region.”

Rye’s Jacob noted that southwestern Pennsylvania is uniquely suited for run-of-the-river hydropower development because dams are already in place to facilitate transportation.

“Energy is being wasted as water flows through those dams,” he said, adding that there are minimal impacts on the environment when building hydropower facilities at existing dams.

The company hopes to construct 10 hydropower plants in the region, but offtake contracts with power purchasers are needed in order to finance and build the facilities, he said.

Pitt’s renewable power commitments

Pitt’s commitments to clean, renewable power represent a significant step toward meeting the University’s goal to become carbon neutral on the Pittsburgh campus by 2037, Pitt’s 250th anniversary.

In 2020, the University accelerated its progress toward that milestone with a commitment to purchase all of the renewable electricity produced by a planned 20-megawatt solar power facility on the border of Allegheny and Beaver counties. 

When the hydropower and solar power facilities are operational, together they will meet about 40% of the Pittsburgh campus energy needs.