Several private companies are evaluating the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam as a potential source of hydropower revenues that could prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from closing the 63-year-old structure.
One company, Thomas Brothers Hydro Inc. of Covington, Ga., estimates the dam could produce as much as $739,000 a year in hydroelectric revenues if outfitted with turbines.
"We're familiar with a lot of Corps dams because we do hydroelectric work all over the country," Hoke Thomas, a co-owner of the company, said. "We'd be interested."
The dam 13 miles downstream from Augusta was built by the Corps in 1937 to aid commercial navigation. Because such commerce no longer exists, the Corps is recommending to Congress the dam be decommissioned.
Augusta and North Augusta were offered a chance to adopt the structure, but both declined, citing Corps estimates that nearly $7 million in repairs are needed to bring the structure up to par.
Mr. Thomas, however, is unsure if such extensive repairs are necessary.
"We see very little difference in the condition of that dam with other dams," he said. "It's just about the same."
Before any private company could take over and operate the dam for hydropower, the Corps likely would have to agree to not require the extensive repairs it now believes are necessary, he said.
Rick Toole, a member of the Augusta Port Authority, said two other private companies -- whom he declined to name -- expressed interest in the project.
"If one of them did something, it certainly could resolve the dilemma of decommissioning the dam," he said.
Critics of the Corps' plan to decommission the structure say the lowering of water levels along downtown Augusta would damage tourism and hamper industrial use of the Savannah River.
If operated as a hydropower site, the pool of water that backs into downtown Augusta -- and serves five major industries -- would be preserved, Mr. Toole said.
Congressman Charlie Norwood, who recently formed a "stakeholders committee" to evaluate options to avoid closing
the dam, sees private hydropower as a possible alternative to closure.
"This dam already has, built right into it, spots for four turbines," said John Stone, Mr. Norwood's press secretary. "They could have been in there and generating power since the 1937 opening."
Mr. Stone said it is possible the revenues could help cover maintenance costs needed to keep the lock and dam in operation, while still turning a profit for investors willing to pursue the project.
Under federal law, major utility wholesalers must purchase electricity purchased by small generators -- such as hydro projects.
"There are all kinds of possibilities," said Larry White, director of resource, policy and planning for Georgia Power Co.
In the late 1970s, Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act that was designed to reduce dependency on fossil fuels by creating incentives for alternative forms of power, he said.
One of those incentives was a law requiring utility wholesalers to purchase all power produced by small generators that qualified for the program, he said.
"Or they could elect to go to the marketplace and sell just like any independent power producer," he said.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.