Hamilton’s Meldahl Hydroelectric Plant on the Ohio River is so large, it took about 100,000 dump-truck loads to excavate the construction site, and about 14,000 concrete truckloads of concrete to build.
The facility, which generates enough electricity to power about 58,000 households, cost about $685 million, including interest payments during construction.
The Meldahl plant went into full operation April 12, an event that triggered an equally important high-finance event on Wednesday, when Hamilton officially sold 48.6 percent of the city’s other Ohio River hydro plant to American Municipal Power, an organization to which the city belongs. Hamilton now owns 51.4 percent of each hydro plant.
After the sale, $103,995,822.40 was wired to an escrow account at U.S. Bank, an amount that will be used to retire debt on the Greenup plant, which began producing power Dec. 7, 1982. Another $35,004,177.60 was wired to Hamilton’s account at First National.
Hamilton and AMP had agreed to close the Greenup transaction within 60 days of the plant at the Meldahl Locks and Dam near Foster, Ky., going into full operation. They did so at the halfway point.
No Hamilton officials were present in New York City on Wednesday when the transfer of the Greenup plant, 88 miles upriver of the Meldahl plant, occurred. Instead, they had signed their paperwork Tuesday, dating it as of Wednesday, said AMP spokesman Kent Carson.
City utility officials have said the $35 million that went to Hamilton must be spent on utility matters, such as capital improvements, and is not available for general city uses.
To celebrate Meldahl’s new operation, city officials plan to hold a dedication there June 2.
“We’re the biggest hydro on the river, as far as megawatt capacity,” said Hamilton hydro-plant operator Daniel Cline of Foster, Ky., as he worked Wednesday at Meldahl amid a constant rumble inside that he compared to when a semi-truck passes on the highway, but with less vibration.
Meldahl will generate about 560 million kilowatt-hours per year, “enough to serve approximately 58,000 households for the next 100-plus years of clean, green renewable power,” said Michael Perry, Hamilton’s director of project implementation. Greenup, meanwhile, generates about 280 million kilowatt hours (enough for about 29,000 households).
Public Utilities Director Kevin Maynard compares Meldahl’s giant bulb turbines to a large ship’s propellers.
“When you’re looking at it, it looks like some of the scenes from the Titanic movie, when the Titanic was sinking and the stern came up out of the water and you saw those propellers? They’re quite large.”
Each “propeller” has four blades that are 32 feet from the tip of one blade to the tip of the opposite blade.
They spin relatively slowly for electric generators — “only” 62.5 rotations per minute. But unlike at coal-burning or natural-gas-fueled generators, there are zero emissions from the plant. Even all the oils used at the plant, which cannot escape from the facility, are “environmentally safe,” he said.
How mammoth was the Meldahl project?
*When you look at the powerhouse now — with the river flowing around it — Meldahl’s hydro plant doesn’t seem very significant,” Perry said. That’s because you only see “the tip of the iceberg,” as those familiar with the project put it. The facility’s powerhouse “is 10 stories high, but more than nine stories are under water,” Perry said.
“Once it’s done, and people go to it, you have no ability to understand just the size of this thing,” Carson said.
In operating Meldahl, “We make pretty frequent phone calls to the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers, because we’re under their discretion of how much water we’re allowed to flow through our turbines,” Cline said. “If the river gets to be pretty low, and they have to hold that water back, they can possibly tell us to take our units off-line.”
“They have to maintain a pool level of at least 12 feet in their channel” to keep navigation flowing on the river, Cline said, “and they actually try to maintain it at about somewhere between 12.7 and 12.8 to give them a comfort area.”
Meanwhile, Carson, who grew up in Portsmouth, near the Greenup site, has seen the beginning of both Hamilton hydro facilities. One day in his youth, he watched part of the Greenup plant, which had been manufactured in France, move upriver by barge.
“When it came up the river by barge, it came right by Portsmouth, and I think half the city was there on the banks of the river to watch this thing go up the river, and it was huge, going up the river like that,” he said.
The Meldahl project was significant enough that Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear attended its ground-breaking ceremony.
“I’ve lived here my entire life,” Cline said. “The ground that they broke on, I used to cut tobacco on where they did a lot of the construction, so it was a bittersweet thing for me” seeing the farmland converted to a construction project, he said.
The project’s a hit with local residents, largely because of the fish, Cline said.
“The fishing area has been a pretty big crowd-pleaser. I talk to a lot of people who use the recreation area, and they’re really pleased with how that turned out.”
Fishing is very good — catfish, sauger and stripers — just downriver of the dam from the recreation area that was built as part of the project, he said.