The city of Richmond is opposing a permit filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission seeking permission to study the feasibility of building a hydroelectric facility at the Bosher’s Dam on the James River, nearly on top of a fishway that allows shad, herring and other species to swim upriver to spawn.
The application was filed in February by Energy Resources USA Inc., part of a Spanish investment company based in Barcelona that specializes in designing, building and operating renewable energy facilities, according to its website. It seeks a permit that would give the company “priority of licensing” for the site but would not authorize any construction, which would have to be sought in a separate permit, said Celeste Miller, a spokeswoman for the regulatory commission. The commission issued a notice of the application April 6 and opened a 60-day period for accepting comments.
“Once that’s completed we’ll review them and make a determination,” Miller said.
In its application, the company, which has sought seven other permits for similar projects in Indiana, Ohio and Arkansas over the past year, proposes to use the existing dam and the reservoir of water it creates to power four turbine generators rated at 2 megawatts each that would be installed in a 197-foot by 65-foot powerhouse placed on city-owned land on the north bank of the James near the Edward E. Willey Bridge.
Also proposed is a 700-foot-long by 180-foot-wide intake area west of the powerhouse and a 300-foot-long “tailrace” at the other end to allow the water to exit the powerhouse.
Ander Gonzalez Escalante, business development manager for the company’s U.S. office in Miami, said in an email that Energy Resources is "aware of the fishway facility and our idea is not to affect it." According to a fact sheet he provided, the company has participated in the design and construction of 16 hydroelectric plants and operates seven others in Spain. Other plants are planned for Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States.
If the permit is issued, the company will conduct "detailed studies" about the feasibility of the project, where electricity generated will go and "how to install the hydro plant without affecting the fishway facility," Gonzalez Escalante said.
The state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which opened the fish ladder in 1999 at Bosher’s Dam to allow migrating fish to swim past the dam for the first time since the structure was built in 1823, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
However, the city of Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities, in comments added to the application file Thursday, opposed issuing the permit and raised questions about the necessity of the new power source, how water withdrawal rights would be obtained and the proximity of the proposed facility to the fish ladder.
“The area is currently served by three major power plants and a number of co-generations plants, therefore there seems to be more than enough sources in the area,”wrote Patrick Bradley, a water quality manager in the utilities department who added that the city’s right to withdraw water from the James dates back 200 years. “The city of Richmond will view any increase in the proposed water withdraw from the currently permitted amounts in the James River basin in context of the city’s water rights and will vigorously defend against actions which we believe will infringe on those rights.”
Bradley also noted that Energy Resources’ application fails to mention the existence of the fishway, also called a fish ladder.
“The documentation shows the intake for the facility immediately upstream of the ladder which will adversely impact the function of the ladder,” he wrote. “Also the facility will effectively cut off access to the ladder for operation and maintenance purposes.”
In an interview, Bradley said the city will monitor the permit application.
“Without any additional information, we don’t see how it could function with the fish ladder,” he said. “We’ll see if any more comes of it.”
Pat Calvert, the Upper James riverkeeper for the nonprofit James River Association, said the river guardian group also has major concerns about the proposal and will submit comments on the application.
“It looks like it would almost certainly impact the function of the fishway,” Calvert said. “I would have concerns about all those uses: recreation, fisheries, boating, paddling, drinking water.”