Berea Is First College In U.S. To Finish Hydropower Project

BEREA, Ky. (AP) — There are a lot of firsts at a new hydroelectric generating station on the Kentucky River in Estill County.

It’s the first hydroelectric project in the nation completed by a college, for example.

Berea College owns the project with a company called Appalachian Hydro Associates, which was the general contractor on construction and operates the plant.

It’s also the first new small hydroelectric project in the state in more than 90 years, the first to use submersible turbine-generators, and the first new hydroelectric plant in the nation to employ variable speed turbine-generators, a technology borrowed from wind turbines that allows them to operate more efficiently.

“We’ve got a lot of new, innovative things going on here,” said David Brown Kinloch, president of Appalachian Hydro Associates, which has worked for years to develop hydroelectric projects on the Kentucky River.

The plant is called the Matilda Hamilton Fee Hydroelectric Station, named for the woman who with her husband, Rev. John Fee, founded Berea in 1855 as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South.

Brown Kinloch’s company built the plant in the lock chamber of Lock and Dam 12, near Ravenna, which had been abandoned since the early 1990s. Contractors poured 3,000 cubic yards of concrete — more than 600,000 gallons — into the 52-foot-wide lock chamber to create stations for five specially-designed turbine-generators turned by the water.

All five units don’t generate all the time because of fluctuations in the river level, but the plant will produce enough electricity on average to power 1,200 homes, Brown Kinloch said.

The plant will offset half of the electricity Berea uses, said Lyle Roelofs, who has been president of the college since 2012.

Other universities are working on hydroelectric projects, including Notre Dame, but Berea was the first to finish one.

Roelofs, a physicist by training, said one key attraction of the project was the ability to cancel a big chunk of the college’s contribution to carbon emissions from electricity produced by burning coal.

Roelofs said the project fits with one of Berea’s governing commitments which hearkens back to the low-impact lifestyle common in Appalachia when Berea was founded. In the 21st Century, the college thinks of it as a commitment to sustainability, Roelofs said.

“Now we are trying to have a minimal impact on the climate and the environment that everyone shares,” Roelofs said.

The project ultimately is projected to be a money-maker for the college, with a long-term return on investment of more than 9 percent.

Tax credits the college sold mean the ultimate cost of the project to Berea will be less than $3 million, Roelofs said. Berea sells the electricity from the plant to Jackson Energy Cooperative at a discount, which means revenue for the college and cheaper electricity for the utility to distribute to customers.

Jackson Energy serves about 51,000 homes and businesses. The hydropower project would not have been possible without the utility taking part, Brown Kinloch said.

The generating facility is designed for 50 years of life, but Roelofs said he thinks it will last considerably longer.

In addition to providing money for the college and offsetting its carbon footprint, the hydro project will provide educational opportunities for students, Roelofs said.

“This project is good in so many ways,” he said.

The project includes a covered pavilion with picnic tables, a portage people can use to carry canoes and kayaks around the lock and dam, and an area where people can park to go fishing.

Estill County Judge-Executive Donnie Watson said the facility will mean added tax revenue for the county and help keep down electricity rates for residents. “It’s a big benefit to the county,” Watson said.