All photos/art by Bob O'Connor
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.
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?”
For more on green dam projects, visit: lowimpacthydro.org