Harnessing Hydro


Ever since he was young, growing up on a dairy farm near a stream in Fond du Lac
County, Ed Hass has greatly appreciated earth’s most abundant natural resource—water.

Ed Hass. Photo courtesy of DPC.

So years later, when he settled near Ellsworth on Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services lines, he purchased land along a quarter mile of Isabelle Creek, which flows into the mighty Mississippi, to make his home. With the nation’s second-largest river as a nearby neighbor, Hass has long considered that the
Mississippi, which runs more than 2,300 miles from northern Minnesota
to the Gulf of Mexico, may hold a wealth of untapped power potential.

“I’ve always been a proponent of hydropower because it is sustainable,” Hass, who currently serves on the board of directors for Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services, said. “You don’t have to wait for the sun to shine or the wind to blow. It doesn’t have a carbon footprint. It doesn’t have nuclear waste, and it’s readily abundant.”

While wind and solar continue to grab the renewable energy headlines, hydropower, also known as hydroelectric, is quietly holding its place as the solid leader in the carbon-emissions-free renewable energy resource category. In December 2022, according to the Energy Information Administration, hydropower provided 4% of electricity generation in Wisconsin, making up almost 40% of our renewable mix. In the United States, hydropower makes up more than 6% of generation and solidly outperforms wind, solar, and
biomass. And globally, hydropower accounts for 16% of generation and 60% of the renewable mix.

Lock and Dam No. 4 near Alma, WI.

But while hydro generation has held steady over 50 years, its market share has greatly diminished with the increased use of electricity generated
by coal and natural gas. So even with the social and political push for a clean energy transition, increasing hydro in the mix is an approach that’s been dead in the water.

There is an almost ubiquitous dissent about the possibility of expanding hydropower, particularly on the Mississippi. It’s a “working river” where barges are critical to transporting goods and fuel to the north and south. It’s too shallow. It’s too slow. And the biggest, most obvious argument—it’s too flat. You need a large “head” or pool of water with a steep vertical drop-off to harness electricity from water.

Or… do you?

Hass, who studied natural resources at UW-Stevens Point and holds a master’s degree from UW-Madison, has been doing his research and found where there is a will, there may be a way. Much like what is happening with nuclear and the development of new small-scale reactors, there is developing technology in the world of hydro.

“We’re moving away from the legacy power plants to more of a distributed generation scenario where we’re going to see a lot of smaller generation sources rather than relying on a few big ones, and certainly, I think hydro energy ought to be part of that picture,” he said.

A barge enters U.S. Lock and Dam No. 6 near Trempealeau.

Options beyond traditional high dam hydropower include low-head hydro, where a dam is constructed (or an existing dam is used) and allowed to fill with water, which generates electricity when released back into the river. In the pumped storage option, water is pumped to a reservoir during off-peak hours, then released to generate power when needed. And an even newer alternative involves working with the sloping river’s changing elevation in the Midwest landscape.

“Imagine as you’re going upstream, the elevation of the land
and the river changes, and gravity pushes the water downstream. If you could build conduit or large pipe that would run parallel to the river and allow water to be diverted to fill that reservoir by gravity, then you wouldn’t have to pump water up into it, and that would even be more efficient because you would avoid the cost of pumping water up into the reservoir,” Hass explained.

The beauty of harnessing energy from hydro in the Upper Mississippi is that it already has 29 existing locks and dams from Minnesota to Missouri, including eight between Hastings, Minnesota, and Genoa,  Wisconsin. Many of them are aging and due to be renovated, upgraded, or replaced. Hass says this is the perfect time to consider adding new hydro-generation without further disrupting the river or the ecosystem that depends on it.

Hass isn’t the only one who thinks now is the time to explore the options to expand hydropower. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulates locks and dams. It reports that several factors, including new technologies that cater to smaller hydropower projects, the expansive tax credits for clean energy projects, and a streamlined permitting process, are generating interest from utilities and developers. Still, to elevate the movement, Hass says, will require help from Congress and the Department of Energy.

He spearheaded an action to bring a resolution to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), which reads: We support legislative and regulatory initiatives which promote the development and implementation of technologies to generate hydroelectric power through the existing lock and dam system on the Mississippi River. We support legislative and regulatory initiatives that enable funding for research and development, technical design, and for upgrading existing and new dam and pump storage hydropower facilities that incorporate low-head capacity hydroelectric power generation.

Steve Freese, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association, addresses the membership of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association during their resolutions meeting to advocate for hydroelectric generation using the Mississippi River’s lock and dam system.

During the business meeting portion of NRECA’s PowerXchange 2023 annual meeting in March, WECA President and CEO Steve Freese explained that this would be a first step. “We really want to have an opportunity to look at using Congress, as we did in 1929 to create the lock and dam system, to figure out whether or not hydroelectric dams are viable on the Mississippi River, because we don’t know,” he said, “We don’t want to impact the barge traffic because 60% of the traffic that goes through lock #11 is agricultural products—basically corn and soybeans, as well as coal that goes to our generation plants. We need to have the ability to have Congress really address this and instruct the Department of Energy and the Army Corps. of Engineers to work with us.”

The membership voted 582–39 to adopt the resolution.

The Wisconsin-led push to pursue the expansion of hydropower is rooted in history. The first hydroelectric power plant to sell electricity in the United States was built in the Badger state,
coming on-line on the Fox River near Appleton in 1882, decades before commercial wind and solar generation, making Wisconsin the nation’s birthplace of carbon emissions-free renewable energy.

Hass wants to see the state’s leadership trend continue as he works to generate discussions about the benefits and opportunities of expanding clean, reliable hydroelectric generation. He said, “I really think it’s the prime, opportune time. That’s what I feel with most things in life, that in order for an idea to develop roots and take off, it has to be at the right time. And this is it. If we can capture energy from currents in the ocean, I would certainly think we could capture energy from a major stream flowing in the middle of the country.”

You can lead a Hass to water, and he’ll sure make you think.—Julie Lund