Small Hydro: New Yorks Past and Future
By Omay Elphick, Gravity Renewables
New York's history is linked deeply to our waterways. Our history of economic growth follows water: from the mills that were built on our riversand streams beginning in the 17th Century to the Erie Canal which helped make New York the financial and industrial capital of the world.
The Legacy and Potential of Small Hydro
“Small hydro” is part of that history. Small hydro refers to the development of hydroelectric power on a scale serving a small community or industrial plant. Small hydro has been important to New York's economy in all regions of the state. Drive along any highway and you'll notice the names of towns and cities that reflect that legacy: Amsterdam, Seneca Falls, Waterloo, Lyons Falls, Potsdam, Beacon Falls, Hoosick Falls—or any of the countless place names that have dam, falls or mill.
What has been true throughout our history is still true today—New York is home to some of the best small hydro facilities and potential in the country,
hosting over 200 small hydroelectric facilities under 20MW. With a combined capacity of approximately 830MW, these hydroelectric plants represent a resource nearly equivalent to the Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant. These numerous plants provide clean, renewable energy and hundreds of jobs
to the region.
Struggles and Solutions
But too many of these hydro projects have fallen into disrepair, remain underutilized or are simply struggling. Volatile energy prices and a lack of investment have meant trouble for many of these facilities.
Without predictable revenue, owners and operators of these facilities are forced to defer maintenance or sometimes even walk away. Operators of small hydro projects that are focused on just getting by are rarely able to invest in modernization, safety and production enhancements. There are facilities throughout New York State not currently operating, most because of unfavorable economic conditions.
Revitalizing these underutilized facilities can play an important part in powering our state's clean energy future. Counties—and other large energy consumers like colleges—all across the state have the opportunity to employ small hydro to provide clean, local power while supporting the local economy.
Chittenden Falls, on the Kinderhook Creek in Columbia County, is a great example. The site first started generating power in 1810 and was even the subject of a 1981 John McPhee essay, “MiniHydro,” published in the New Yorker. A lack of predictable revenue had meant the facility had started to fall into disrepair.
In 2014, Skidmore College signed an agreement with Gravity Renewables. Now, the Chittenden Falls facility has been refurbished—renovations include an on-site classroom that will serve as a learning resource for students and faculty. The facility is back online and will be producing 4 million kWh each year for the College. Columbia County benefits from the local investment, preserved jobs, and local spending.
County Support for Small Hydro: A Win-Win
Some innovative counties in New York have also recognized the opportunity and are already taking advantage of these local resources. Signing long-term power purchase agreements for small hydro to protect themselves against volatile energy costs while providing the revenue certainty required to allow the owner-operators to invest in rehabilitating their facilities.
Tompkins and St. Lawrence counties are leading the way. Each are committed to purchasing power from local small hydro facilities.
St. Lawrence County's agreement, for example, will bring up to 1.4 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year of clean hydropower. The county receives the energy from the plant through remote net metering. The move to local hydropower helps to stabilize their energy costs and allows the county to realize modest savings—but they're accomplishing so much more.
Refurbishing small hydro facilities pays triple dividends back to the county:
ï® First, it ensures the facility will not fall into disrepair. Failing dams can pose a danger by making local communities vulnerable to flooding—a rising threat as climate change drives more extreme weather events. In Pennsylvania, when a neglected project on the Susquehanna River experienced a dam breach, the license-holder walked away, leaving the project as the responsibility of the state.
ï® The second dividend these facilities provide is supporting the local tax base. In counties like St. Lawrence, run-of-river small hydro contributes approximately 6% of the property tax base—revenue that is predictable and reliable for the county.
ï® The third dividend coming back to the county is local jobs. Each facility requires workers to keep it operating smoothly and efficiently—local trades
and local staff that will have work for the lifetime of the agreement.
Taken together, the triple dividend is significant with each small hydro project bringing at least $100,000 per year in local economic benefits in the form of property taxes, jobs, and local spending.
The Municipal Electric and Gas Alliance (MEGA)—an aggregator of electricity, natural gas and renewable power that works with counties and municipalities across New York—also understands the potential with local hydro. MEGA's primary objective is to achieve the most competitive prices for electricity and natural gas for its members in order to minimize the cost of energy. Beginning in 2014, MEGA and Gravity partnered in a multi-year collaboration during which Gravity serves as the preferred provider of energy from small hydroelectric sites to MEGA participants, municipalities and
public agencies around New York.
Through the MEGA partnership, Gravity Renewables has secured the first 10 million kilowatt hours of commitments—and that's a fantastic start. New York's colleges and universities are also participating, with Skidmore College, St. Lawrence University, and Vassar College signing long-term agreements. There are many small hydro facilities that still need re-investment. These facilities offer counties and municipalities an opportunity to stabilize their energy costs and preserve upstate New York's energy legacy for the future.