FERC authorizes mine drainage microhydro

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued a hydropower license to a project whose turbines generate electricity from acid mine drainage. The micro-hydropower license issued to the Antrim Treatment Trust illustrates this unusual approach to the twin challenges of mine remediation and renewable energy.

The power of falling water, in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.
In the 1980s, Antrim Mining, Inc. operated a surface bituminous coal mine in Pennsylvania.  When water draining through the mine and into streams and rivers was found to exceed pollution limits, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged the company with violations of mining and reclamation law.  The charges led to a series of settlements through which Antrim agreed to improved water treatment facilities, including an off-the-grid hydroelectric facility.  This micro-hydro plant would be powered by treated effluent flowing downhill out of lagoons.  Antrim created the Antrim Treatment Trust to manage treatment of the mine water in 1991, then went out of business.

In an attempt to reduce the cost of treating the site's severe acid mine drainage, the Babb Creek Watershed Association identified micro-hydropower as an option for the site.  In 2008, the association received an Energy Harvest Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.  This $428,710 award was designed to support the installation of two hydroelectric turbines on the treatment plant's discharge, which was completed in 2012.

While the Federal Power Act requires most hydropower projects to secure a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, some off-grid hydropower projects that do not use the waters of the United States do not require licensure.  In 2010, the Antrim Treatment Trust filed a Declaration of
Intent for a 40-kilowatt grid-connected project, but quickly revised its project to be off-grid after the Commission issued an order finding that a license was required for the grid-connected project.  Once the project was off-grid, the Commission ruled that no license was required.

The Antrim treatment plant seems to have then operated one turbine, but left the second turbine non-operational. A 2012 article in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette suggested that with both turbines running and selling power into the electricity grid, the treatment plant could cut $12,000 in annual power costs and make $10,000 per year in new revenue.  But this could require a FERC license, because the project would become connected to the utility grid.

The Trust appears to have decided that these economics were worth pursuing, because in 2013 it filed an application for a project license for a 40-kilowatt project.  In the application, Antrim Trust proposed to bring a second identical turbine (currently in place but non-operational) online by installing additional indoor wiring with appurtenances within the existing powerhouse and treatment plant, and operate both turbines as a grid-connected project using the treated and/or untreated water.

As licensed, the Commission estimates the annual cost to develop and maintain the proposed 40-kW project is $9,356 or $37.42/megawatt-hour (MWh).  The project will generate an estimated average of 250 MWh of energy annually.  Based on Commission staff’s view of the alternative cost of power ($56.93/MWh), the total value of the project’s power is $14,233 in 2013 dollars.  To determine whether the proposed project is currently economically beneficial, staff subtracts the project’s cost from the value of the project’s power. Therefore, in the first year of operation, the project is expected to cost $4,877 or $19.51/MWh less than the likely alternative cost of power - demonstrating economic benefit.

Micro-hydropower projects can make economic sense in some mine drainage situations and other places where water treatment is required and a suitable vertical drop or pressure is available.  In Antrim's case, the project's success can partially be explained by the existence and purpose of the Trust, as well as the DEP grant to support project construction.  If treated and untreated mine drainage can be used to generate hydroelectricity, what other unusual sources of power will arise?

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