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Run of the River | Hydro Power Plant Restoration

Run of the River | Hydro Power Plant Restoration
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King has refitted a dozen or more plants since that one on the French River, most of which he still owns and operates with a partner–each one its own mix of site challenges and creative, frugal, cobbled-together engineering. The plant in West Springfield, at 1.5 megawatts, is one of his larger ones; preceding owners obtained the federal license for it in 1994. Running at full capacity, it can send out enough clean electricity to power some 1,500 homes. (The power is sold to a municipality an hour away.) But it’s clear, after just a few minutes’ conversation, that King isn’t in it for the money. He checks the gauges in the powerhouse–the big unit is running at 570 kilowatts–and offers rapid-fire, nonstop commentary on the environment, government policy, history, engineering.

“The power trash rake here was built years ago by Alpine Machine; they’re still active up in Berlin, New Hampshire …” he says. “We had our big generator rewound 25 minutes away at a machine shop in Connecticut. The turbines here were made in the 1920s by the Rodney Hunt Company [of Orange, Massachusetts]. They’re so simple and well built that you really don’t need to replace parts. The bottom bearings that stabilize the vertical shafts are made of ‘lignum vitae,’ a tropical hardwood. Those bearings stay underwater, lubricated by water and natural oils; they should last a long, long time … But I know a guy up in Newport, New Hampshire, who has a source for them, new …”

Outside, the wide Westfield River sparkles below the power plant, on its way to the Connecticut. Sunlight shafts through the big windows. Brass gleams; freshly painted iron machinery hums, hard at work. King stops for a second, the unnaturalness of the warm spring hanging unspoken in the air. Then, not indicating anything in particular, he says, “Isn’t it handsome?”

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