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COLUMBUS — Nebraska Public Power District will fund a study to determine whether it can affordably generate more hydroelectricity.

The utility is paying Colorado-based Applegate Group $150,274 to evaluate the potential for more hydropower in Nebraska, both in existing plants and at new sites. McMillen Engineering and Telluride Energy also are assisting on the study, which is expected to be finalized by April 2013.

Brian Barels, NPPD’s water resources manager, said it’s the right time for a feasibility study on hydroelectricity because federal licensing requirements on the renewable energy are being eased and recent research has focused on new ways to generate power using water sources.

“There’s a number of existing facilities around the state that might have potential with these new technologies,” Barels said.

Currently, NPPD owns hydropower plants near Spencer, North Platte and Kearney and purchases electricity generated by two plants on the Loup Public Power District canal and from Kingsley Hydro on Lake McConaughy and two plants owned by Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District positioned on canals downstream from Johnson Lake.

Those plants will be evaluated to determine whether upgrades can be made to improve efficiency or increase production.

Other existing infrastructure, such as the Sutherland Reservoir near Gerald Gentleman Station and Loup’s power canal, will be looked at as potential sites for new projects.

Barels said advanced equipment that doesn’t require a large reservoir of water opens the door for more hydroelectric opportunities.

For instance, Barels pointed to a new wastewater treatment plant planned in South Sioux City as a site where hydrokinetic technology could be used to generate electricity using water from the discharge pipe.

“There’s different ways that you can use hydro now,” he said.

According to Barels, Nebraska’s newest hydroelectric plant was added to the Kingsley Dam in the mid-1980s. But the resource hasn’t been forgotten.

Applegate Group will call on previous state and private studies to identify locations suitable for hydroelectricity.

Barels said there are sites where people would like a reservoir for recreation or flood control that could also produce power and several existing dams, particularly on the Republican River, can be retrofitted to do so.

“There’s a lot of information out there that we can take and apply,” he said.

Hydroelectricity presently comprises about 8.6 percent of the total electricity generated and purchased by NPPD. Wind, by comparison, makes up slightly less than 4 percent, but is expected to reach 5.2 percent by year’s end after wind farms near Broken Bow and Crofton go online.

NPPD has a goal of receiving 10 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

Barels, who called the cost of hydropower “very competitive” with other sources, said adding more water-generated electricity makes sense as the district moves to strengthen its renewable portfolio.

And unlike wind, water can be stored for use during high-demand times. Hydroelectricity, Barels said, is also more flexible than coal-fired plants, which are slow to increase output when extra power is needed.

“It offers some of those capabilities in our energy mix that aren’t necessarily there,” Barels said of hydroelectricity.

However, there are downsides such as the current drought that has limited water supplies across the state and 2011 flooding that had many hydro plants producing at full-tilt for an extended period.

“There’s positives and negatives to all the different energy resources,” Barels said. “We try to find that mix that works best to have what we need when we need it for our customers.”

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