Hopes of giving migrating shad a boost up the Susquehanna River were dashed in December when the owners of the Holtwood Dam, citing poor economic conditions, withdrew plans to improve fish passage while increasing power generation.
PPL announced Dec. 9 that it had withdrawn the application submitted a year earlier to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission seeking to expand its Holtwood hydroelectric plant in Lancaster County, PA.
"As we evaluated that project, in light of current economic conditions and projections of future energy prices, we reached the conclusion that it is no longer economically justifiable," said William Spence, executive vice president and chief operating officer of PPL Corp.
The decision is a serious blow to efforts to improve movement of migratory fish up the Susquehanna, where the Holtwood Dam, the second of four hydroelectric facilities fish encounter in the first 55 miles of the river, is a major bottleneck.
"We're very disappointed that they didn't proceed," said Mike Hendricks, of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. "We spent a lot of time and effort negotiating with them over the past four years. We hope at some time in the future they will move forward with the project."
A $21 million fish elevator was opened at Holtwood in 1997 as part of an effort to complete fish passage facilities at all four dams. But the Holtwood elevator frequently performs poorly, typically passing only a fraction of the fish lifted over the Conowingo Dam downstream.
Last spring, the lift at Conowingo moved 19,914 shad upstream, but just 2,795 of those made it past Holtwood. For those that failed to move farther upstream, the trip back to the Susquehanna was a biological dead end-scientists say there is no suitable shad spawning habitat between Conowingo and Holtwood.
Shad find their way upstream by swimming against the current. Fish passages are usually designed to use the flow from power generation units to attract fish to the passage.
At Holtwood, though, whenever the river flow exceeds about 31,500 cubic feet per second-a common occurrence during spring shad runs-the river "spills" over the dam. That attracts the fish to the base of the dam where they remain, instead of to the fish lift at the powerhouse on dam's east side.
PPL had proposed adding two new generating units that would add 125 megawatts of capacity-enough to power 100,000 homes. Those units would also release more water near the fish lift to attract shad.
But PPL officials said the rising costs for construction and borrowing money doomed the project.
"It would have been a very attractive project," said George Lewis, a PPL spokesman. "As many things have gone by the boards in the current economy, this project has become another victim."
The dam needs a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2014, and Lewis said discussions on that license will begin this year. Aspects of the project may come up during relicensing negotiations, he said, especially if interest in renewable energy from hydroelectric facilities increases.
Hendricks said resource agencies would push for fish passage improvements as a condition of any new license. But that means improved fish passage may not happen until sometime after 2014.
"We expected by 2011 to see major improvements at Holtwood in terms of fish passage, and that's not going to happen now," Hendricks said. "Hopefully, we will see that happen sometime later, but right now, that is pretty much on hold."