Opinion: Why hydropower deserves a key place in SC’s green-energy future
In Upstate South Carolina, about 10 miles northwest of Greenville, are the headwaters of the Saluda River, a 200-mile tributary flanked by beautiful riverbanks.
Along the river are historic hydroelectric facilities, in the towns of Piedmont, Pelzer, Williamston, and Ware Shoals. The Lower Pelzer Hydroelectric facility, located in Williamston, was the first in the US to use overhead transmission lines to power a textile mill, serving the mill in Pelzer. Ware Shoals, founded in 1902, depended on the power of the river and today prides itself on the history of Sen. Nathaniel B. Dial, who first conceived of constructing this hydroelectric plant to power the local textile mill.
You can — and should — behold these historic hydroelectric plants. Even though the textile mills they once powered are gone, the hydroelectric facilities are still operational, providing green power to the local grid and recreational attributes to the community.
Indeed, throughout small towns in South Carolina and across the United States, “mom-and-pop” hydro plants, some on the National Register of Historic Places, are sprinkled. They have become interwoven in our social and historical fabric, but should also be recognized as forerunners of the green-energy revolution.
In 1900, hydropower accounted for nearly 57 percent of the electricity in the United States. Today, that number has dropped to 7 percent. The reasons for this national drop are varied, but it’s mostly due to the convenience of cheaper fuel like coal. Out-of-date federal rules also provide cover for large utilities, like Duke Energy, as they force small hydroelectric facilities into retirement due to low power purchase rates.
At the moment, renewable power accounts for about 8 percent of South Carolina’s net generation. That puts South Carolina toward the bottom of the national heap when it comes to environmental stewardship.
If hydro were an ineffective source of power, that would be one thing. However, as history has shown, hydropower can serve both as a baseload and a peak power source. The sun may not shine and the wind may not blow, but our streams and rivers usually flow. Hydropower should be included in the package of renewables for reliability and resiliency.
We believe that larger power companies, like Duke Energy, share our environmental concerns. Indeed, their energy portfolios include renewable investments, including hydro plants. This gives us confidence that they are willing to work fairly with the smaller renewable energy suppliers that dot our state. There are challenges to reaching power purchase agreements that are fair to both large and small energy interests in the state, but with the best interest of our citizens in mind, good things can be achieved.
If South Carolina is serious about green stewardship and about securing a clean future for coming generations, ensuring small hydro remains in the renewable mix is an environmentally common-sense decision we should make. That means putting value toward maintaining this clean energy resource.
Beth Harris, P.E., is operations manager – West and South, for Central Rivers Power, LLC. Central Rivers operates four small hydroelectric plants on the Saluda River in South Carolina.