A catastrophic dam failure at a Michigan hydropower disaster this month has left thousands stranded, highlighting the fact that when it comes to clean energy
it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. The events were like the stereotypical action movie. Surreal, actually. And if you weren’t living it, it would be nearly impossible to believe…
A deadly Wuhan-originating virus, complete with unknown properties and remedies, makes its way to major U.S. cities. It spreads. The entire economy shuts down, leaving tens of millions of people without work and scrambling to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper and debt-laden oil companies withering on the vine, threatening the very notion of America’s energy independence.
Then, just as the spread of the virus begins to slow, major rainfall, combined with what could be kindly described as negligence, collapses a hydropower dam, requiring the evacuation of 10,000 residents near Midland, Michigan.
Now, as Midland residents move to sue the dam owner, the latter is pointing fingers at state regulators. Others are placing the blame squarely on FERC, the government body tasked with issuing licenses to generate electricity from dams.
Whoever is at fault, the tragedy raises critical questions of the viability of the renewables segment that has been hailed as the cheapest form of power the world over.
Last week, the Edenville dam in Michigan experienced a catastrophic failure after particularly heavy rains. The dam, which is owned and operated by an independent company Boyce Hydro Power LLC and generates electricity to sell on to utility companies, also holds back Wixom Lake from the Tittabawassee River. About 10,000 mid-Michigan residents were evacuated, and a state of emergency declared. (Make that another state of emergency, as one already exists in Michigan for the coronavirus pandemic.)
The collapse of the dam then triggered another failure of a second dam, the Sanford dam. Then yet another structure, the Poseyville Dike, followed suit. More water, more evacuations.
Midland, home to 42,000 residents, is also home to Dow Chemical, which lies on the banks of the Tittabawassee River, unfortunately positioned downstream from both the Edenville and Sanford dams.
The flooding was thought to be the worst in 500 years.
How much of the hydropower disaster can rightfully be pinned on torrential rains is still in question, in part because the dam just wasn’t up to snuff in the first place.
Boyce Hydro’s Edenville Dam
The Edenville dam is a 4.8 MW project that generates and sells electricity to power companies such as Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison. It has been doing so for decades, but there have been major problems with the dam that have gone unattended.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which grants licenses for hydropower projects in the United States, dinged Boyce Hydro for their Edenville dam project decades ago. Yes, decades.
The problem? According to FERC, the project needed to increase its spillway capacity, due to a concern that the project was unable to pass the Probable Maximum Flood, or PMF. This is a metric that defines the largest predictable storm.
Boyce considers that this has been calculated to occur once in a million years. It is likely this belief that has contributed in part to the spillway being capable of handling only half the PMF.
The problem is, we’ve just seen that maximum flood.
When FERC first identified the spillway deficiencies in 1999, the project was owned by Wolverine Power Corp. The project and its license were transferred to Boyce in 2004.
Fast forward twenty years and nothing has been done to increase the project’s spillway capacity. And in fact, FERC suspended Boyce’s license to generate power from the dam in 2018 due to its failure to bring the project into compliance “knowingly and willfully”.
While Boyce appealed the suspension, FERC denied the request, saying in part,
“We have previously concluded that “Boyce Hydro has, for more than a decade, knowingly and willfully refused to comply with major aspects of its license and the Commission’s regulatory regime, with the result that public safety has been put at risk and the public has been denied the benefits, particularly hydropower disaster project recreation, to which it is entitled” and that “[t]he record demonstrates that there is no reason to believe that Boyce Hydro will come into compliance; rather, the licensee has displayed a history of obfuscation and outright disregard of its obligations.”
Boyce, however, argues that the local regulatory body pushed Boyce in April to raise water levels in the lake prior to the flooding.
This news was originally posted on oilprice.com