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Run of the River | Hydro Power Plant Restoration

Run of the River | Hydro Power Plant Restoration
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Bob King stands at the headworks of an old, 18-foot-high hemlock-and-stone crib dam spanning the Westfield River between Agawam and West Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s mid-April 2012, in the midst of what has been a historically warm spring following an unnaturally dry winter, and the only water coming over the dam shoots through two open sluiceways just below him. “Normally at this time of year,” he says, “the river would be swollen from snowmelt and you’d see a curtain absolutely pouring over the dam. We’d be running both units at full power and spilling water like crazy.”

As it is, only the larger of the two turbines in the powerhouse, a half-mile downstream, is even spinning, and that one not anywhere near capacity. “Fortunately for us,” King adds, “it got cold again after all those hot days in March, so the leafing-out slowed down. Once the leaves are out, the trees start drinking up water so fast you can almost see the river drop. If it weren’t for that cold, we might be shutting down already–something in a normal year we wouldn’t do until July or August.”

In the pre-Thomas Edison days, water mechanically powered the belts and pulleys of streamside factories in just about every drainage of any size in New England. Just as it was for those early entrepreneurs, the 21st-century owners of small hydropower plants are part businessmen, part engineers, part farmers: at the mercy of the elements.

Bob King is also part dreamer. He remembers the first hydropower plant he ever saw, when he was just 11 years old in the early 1970s, exploring the woods near his home in Concord, Massachusetts. “I came upon an old mill site and dam on the Assabet,” he recalls. “It was a classic little powerhouse, early-20th-century industrial architecture–you know, brick, nice big windows, flat roof. The windows were all smashed and the doors were gone, but you could sense where there used to be a giant pancake generator. You could almost picture where the old slate switchgear panels had been, with their moving needles and flashing lights …” Of course, as a boy, he didn’t have that vocabulary for it on that afternoon. But right then he started dreaming of rebuilding a part of New England’s history.

As King got older, he drove around old mill towns and valley bottoms, scoping out abandoned powerhouses, silted-in dams, collapsed penstocks–the archaeological remains of a renewable power that had run its course by the end of the 1930s, when hydro produced 40 percent of the nation’s electricity; today, despite more hydro power overall, this resource amounts to only 10 percent of our total power output. King’s was a tour of a New England heritage not found in the guidebooks–more often than not visiting decaying industrial eyesores, victims of neglect and vandalism, though often with their backs to some beautiful water.

Bob King came from an ecologically minded family. Even at a young age he had absorbed the clean-power implications of resurrecting small-scale hydro. But the restless curiosity of the tinkerer was all his own. After immersing himself in hydraulics, physics, and engineering classes at Cornell University, then working for a time for a West Coast company that built and sold hydroelectric equipment, in 1987 he got a shot at a derelict plant on the French River in northeastern Connecticut.

He lived onsite for three years, doggedly removing a half-century’s worth of muck and debris and repairing or replacing the rusting, ruined, and missing pieces. He held work parties, when 20 or 30 friends would pitch in with hammers and rakes by day and hang out with guitars and beer at night; a lot of heavy lifting got done. He taught himself to weld. He rebuilt an old gearbox he’d found at a used-motor shop in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A junkyard dealer let him have a couple of antique Kaplan turbines for 50 bucks apiece–less than scrap value–because he liked King’s spirit. He farmed out some of the higher-end machining but did much of the work and all of the engineering himself.

The economics of the enterprise were murky. Once upon a time, mill owners had a reliable, predictable energy source. They’d hold water back at an upstream reservoir overnight, then release it each morning–essentially turning on the switch–for the day’s rush of power. That on-again/off-again approach worked well for the mills’ day work, but not so well for the fish and the riverine habitat. In contrast, today’s small hydro plants, subject to strict environmental regulations, are generally “run of the river”: They take in what the flowing water gives them, then return it straightaway. It’s a dicier proposition–the flow affected by not only the season but also the weather.

After an initial gold-rush burst of enthusiasm following passage of the National Energy Act of 1978, which guaranteed a market for small, private energy producers, prices paid by the utilities eventually drifted downward. By the time King’s little 275-kilowatt plant began sending electricity out into the grid in 1989, he was getting paid anywhere from $50 to $3,000 a month, depending on the run of the river.

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