Executive Director's Message

Spring 2024: News & Views from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission!

Andrew D. Dehoff, P.E., Executive Director

Recently many people have been occupied by an unusual proposition – the proposal of a new electric generating facility along the lower Susquehanna River. Generating facilities in and of themselves aren’t particularly unusual; SRBC has authorized water use for at least half a dozen new natural gas fired power plants in my 10 year tenure as Executive Director. But potential construction of a 25-foot-high, 1.8-mile-long dam and power turbine pumped storage facility at Cuffs Run in York County is getting significant attention.

The factors drawing attention range from the unique design (there is only one other pumped storage operation in the Susquehanna Basin) to the potential impacts to the River, as well as the natural, cultural, recreational and human resources of the area that would be flooded behind the new dam.

Pumped storage itself is a somewhat perplexing concept – these facilities actually consume more electricity than they generate. Why, then, are they built? Like anything, they’re built when and if they make basic engineering and economic sense. The existing Muddy Run pumped storage facility in Lancaster County is a success, despite consuming more energy than it generates, because it uses energy overnight, when prices are lower, to pump water from the Susquehanna to a reservoir on the bluff high above the river. The stored water is then sent back down to the river through hydroelectric turbines to generate electricity during the day when demand (and thus prices) for electricity are higher. Due to pump and turbine inefficiencies, it takes more electricity to pump the water up than is generated with that same water hours later; but the difference in pricing makes the operation worthwhile.

Several critical factors aligned to make Muddy Run feasible – the River was already ponded by the Conowingo Dam, so there was a ready supply of water for pumping; the nearby Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station generates power around the clock and has a surplus of cheap electricity in the nighttime hours; and due to the proximity of Peach Bottom and the Conowingo, Holtwood and Safe Harbor hydroelectric dams there were existing transmission lines to accept the new electricity. The company proposing the Cuffs Run project is presumably eyeing that same trifecta.

Projects like this one do not come about often, but they are exactly the type of project the framers had in mind when they drafted the Susquehanna River Basin Compact in the 1960s and included the imperative that SRBC adopt a Comprehensive Plan for the water resources of the basin. How do such projects align with our needs, wants, and values? How will the operation impact the river, wildlife, residents, and other water users? Does the project provide a net benefit to the basin states and strike the right balance between development and preservation?

2024 offers a different landscape than 1964 when Muddy Run began operations. In the intervening 60 years new water users have come to rely on the lower river for water supply and there is tremendous focus on restoring the Chesapeake Bay, both relevant factors potentially impacted by a new pumped storage facility. Also part of the consideration is the retirement of many coal-fired power plants and the interest in cleaner, “greener” energy, which is typically how hydroelectric is categorized. The company proposing the new dam is asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for authorization to study these and other factors in the ultimate quest for a license to construct and operate. If that authorization is granted, SRBC will be actively involved in ensuring that the right questions are asked and all the necessary and appropriate considerations are made.

Along with our partners, SRBC can and does influence how our water resources are developed and will do so in this case as well. If the proposal advances to the study phase SRBC will take the lead on certain elements of the evaluation, such as its potential impact to the flows of the river and to the operations of the facilities that already exist. And our involvement will be consequential. I feel confident saying that because it was solely through an SRBC initiative that the new natural gas fired power plants I referenced adopted “dry” cooling technology that reduced their water consumption by roughly 90%, conserving millions of gallons of our most precious resource every day.

A great deal has changed in the 53 years SRBC has operated, and we look at things differently now, with shifted priorities. Where deemed feasible, projects like Cuffs Run were built decades ago. Bringing 21st century perspectives to the proposal is new territory, but it’s a direction we’re equipped and eager to follow.

Best regards,
Andrew D. Dehoff, P.E.
Executive Director