Pittsburgh’s renewable energy opportunity in hydropower: generating power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

Only about 3% of the over 80,000 existing dams in the U.S are actively producing electricity. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Pittsburgh District operates 23 dams alone. Many of these non-powered dams present a unique opportunity for repurposing existing infrastructure to create a local renewable energy solution that supports Pittsburgh’s growing innovation economy.

Rye Development is the leading developer of new low impact hydropower energy generation and energy storage in the United States. We are committed to playing a critical role in accelerating the country’s renewable energy transition over the coming decades. Based in Boston, but with staff across the country, Rye has strategically chosen Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania as one of its flagship development locations.

Over the past 10 years, Rye has worked to obtain state and federal licensing for eight low impact, run-of-river hydroelectric projects in southwestern Pennsylvania – known for its iconic three rivers: the Monongahela and the Allegheny which form the Ohio. These projects (four on the Mon, three on the Ohio, and one on the Allegheny) will remove a piece of the existing dam, replace it with a small powerhouse, and generate nearly 600 gigawatt hours of 24/7 renewable energy annually over initial 50-year operating licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Each project will qualify for PA Tier I renewable energy credits (RECs) while also obtaining Low Impact Hydro Institute certification – the highest industry standard. We anticipate the projects will inject $400 – $600 million into the local economy through construction and long-term operations.

Why the southwestern Pennsylvania region? While it is true that with so many non-powered dams across the country opportunities exist everywhere, Rye believes that the greater Pittsburgh region is poised to lead this national reinvention.

The opportunity starts with a distinctive set of physical attributes. Constructed decades ago, for navigability and flood control, existing lock and dam systems start in the urban core and continue throughout the 10-county region. These structures are as critical today, for commerce and flood control, as they were when originally constructed. The vast majority of the region’s locks and dams are owned and operated by the USACE, creating certainty of the physical asset long into the future. Southwestern Pennsylvania will also continue to see increased precipitation due to climate change, bolstering the projects’ ability to guarantee energy generation for years to come.  

Pittsburgh also has a set of willing and engaged community stakeholders. Over the past few years, Rye has been fortunate enough to sign deals with the University of Pittsburgh for Allegheny Lock and Dam #2 (Highland Park) and Allegheny County for Emsworth Dam (adjacent to Neville Island). These agreements will provide renewable power to Pitt and Allegheny County for years to come. Additionally, we have received broad support from business, nonprofit, and public sector leaders in the region – all recognizing the compelling renewable energy story that the region can tell moving forward.  

In addition to siting our projects in an advantageous location, the projects also allow Rye to capitalize on larger regional economic development trends. The Pittsburgh region has benefitted from a strong emphasis on growing its innovation economy in the past decade, attracting the likes of Google, Facebook and recently Waymo and incubating exciting companies like Duolingo and Aurora. Creating a business and lifestyle climate that attracts and retains these types of companies is no small task, and groups like InnovatePGH and the Allegheny Conference have made huge strides for the region.

Along these same lines, we have seen increased interest from many tech-based companies in our low-impact, run-of-river hydro projects. The tech sector is shifting away from simply offsetting power consumption through the purchase of renewable energy credits, to demanding a round-the-clock renewable energy asset to run their operations every hour of every day. This 24/7 renewable demand puts resources like our projects in an incredibly valuable position. While wind and solar led the early stages of renewable development, we are seeing increased requests for local, on-demand, 24/7 renewable energy sources. Pittsburgh is well-positioned to leverage this opportunity – generating power when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow.

In conjunction with these economic development efforts, we believe that Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania is poised to leverage its waterways in a new way – reinventing infrastructure that used to move coal and steel to support the next wave of renewable energy innovation.