The increasing impacts from global climate change compel all of us to do everything possible to reduce carbon emissions. With the recent completion of a hydroelectric generating station on the Kentucky River near Ravenna in Estill County, Berea College is leading by example.
The Matilda Hamilton Fee Hydroelectric Station, named for the partner and spouse of Berea College founder Reverend John G. Fee, is the first new hydropower facility built in Kentucky in 94 years. It is also the first of its kind to use a combination of modern technology and existing infrastructure. The result is that about half of Berea College’s electric power usage will be offset by this source of clean, renewable energy. Our plans to build a second hydroelectric station on the river will compensate for the other half of our electric usage. And, if we count in the carbon captured by the Berea College Forest, our carbon footprint will actually be negative in the future. (Technically, we sell the carbon credits created by the Forest in the California carbon credit market, so that absorption doesn’t really count against our footprint; it is offsetting someone else’s.)
The technical details of our hydropower demonstration project are dazzling. Our engineering partners, Appalachian Hydro Associates (AHA), engineered the re-use of an existing, century-old lock and dam structure to house the power plant, providing a significant cost reduction. The lock at Dam 12 had been out of use and welded shut since the 1990s, and until now, the water flowing over the dam represented wasted energy. AHA “shoehorned” five 528 kW submersible turbine generators into the abandoned lock. Submersible generators are necessary for this application because they are unaffected by flooding, a frequent reality on our state’s fickle river.
This plant is also the first in the country to use variable speed drives, a technology borrowed from the wind power industry that dramatically increases efficiency. It even makes use of NASA-developed technology to prevent rust, meaning that the lifespan of the turbines is 50 years, twice that of wind turbines and solar farms.
The power generated by this facility is being sold to Jackson Energy Cooperative at a discounted rate, so its customers ultimately benefit as well. The $11 million construction cost of this project was partially offset by various available tax credits resulting in an acceptable rate of return for the College even after the discount. So, this project is a win-win-win: it’s a great long-term investment for us, but it’s also beneficial for the community and it’s the right thing to do for the climate of our planet.
Berea College, like all schools, has a mission, and ours mission has eight parts. We call this mission the Great Commitments, among them affordable and accessible education, serving Appalachia and environmental sustainability. Our Tuition Promise Scholarship covers the cost of tuition for every student, which means low-income Appalachian students can earn a high-quality education they otherwise would not be able to afford. Our commitment to sustainability means these students can also learn the latest in environmentally friendly practices, whether it be on the College farm, in the forest or, as of now, along the Kentucky River, where clean hydropower is being generated. They can even live in the world’s “greenest” residence hall, right on campus.
Our students learn the science of sustainability and the importance of household-level activities like recycling or purchasing an electric vehicle. As we look toward a better, cleaner future, these same students will understand, as well, the opportunities at the institutional level. Through our demonstration project, we aim to show them and all other Kentuckians that environmentally sustainable projects are not only financially feasible and attractive, but also the right thing to do at this point in time.
We must all take action against global climate change, and sooner rather than later. Our collective future and economic success depends on it. The Matilda Hamilton Fee Hydroelectric Station is one example of how we can work together to address these challenges.
Dr. Lyle Roelofs is president of Berea College.