sustainability

Energy flows

A hydropower project could fill a significant amount of Sullivan County’s electrical needs

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 10/14/20

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — If there’s one thing Sullivan County has, it’s water.

“Hydro has always played a role in New York State’s development,” said Heather …

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sustainability

Energy flows

A hydropower project could fill a significant amount of Sullivan County’s electrical needs

Posted

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — If there’s one thing Sullivan County has, it’s water.

“Hydro has always played a role in New York State’s development,” said Heather Brown, sustainability coordinator for Sullivan County. “Our rivers, our watershed—it’s almost like a community member.”

It’s a community member with the potential to power our energy-hungry lives. And the county is developing a project that will make it happen.

As of 2017, Sullivan is a Certified Climate Smart community, working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

Part of this is that they aren’t just thinking about using renewable energy, they are actually doing it. At the moment, 26 percent of the county’s energy needs are generated by the solar array. But Brown and the Sustainability Department are planning to use hydropower, too.

“Back in 2016, we asked Gravity Renewables about the potential” for hydropower, Brown said. Gravity, based in Boulder, CO, develops small hydroelectric power plants, taking existing dams, refurbishing them and upgrading them where necessary to make them more efficient.

Facts about hydropower

  1. It’s one of the oldest energy sources on the planet. Water from a river or stream powered wheels that turned machinery to grind grain.
  2. Hydropower is renewable and produces no air pollution or toxic byproducts.
  3. Niagara Falls, built in 1881, was the first hydroelectric plant. The first commercial hydroelectric plant was built a year later in Appleton, WI and produced electricity to light up a paper mill.
  4. Hydropower is cheap. “States that get the majority of their electricity from hydropower, like Idaho, Washington and Oregon, have energy bills that are lower than the rest of the country,” says www.energy.gov.
  5. It produces about seven percent of the electricity generated in the U.S.
  6. “Elevators” and “ladders” help fish navigate their way around dams.
  7. The U.S. has 80,000 dams. Only three percent of them generate power.

From www.energy.gov.

The county learned that hydropower could generate 40 to 45 percent of the electrical load. Add that to the 26 percent from solar and you have a significant chunk of Sullivan’s electricity that doesn’t come from fossil fuels.

“That is renewable energy. That is green energy,” Brown said.

Sullivan County has many dams—most are historic and all are serving a vital purpose. Often, the lakes they created are now their own ecosystems. “They have their own environmental impact,” Brown said. “They’ve existed for 100 years and everything has adapted around them.”

And they draw swimmers and tourists.

“You have this wonderful lake that’s become a community resource,” Brown said. “It serves multiple purposes... they’ve been a source of pride.”

But dams need regular repair, and that hasn’t always been possible. The money isn’t always available.

It’s a common problem. “Aging hydropower is tucked away in small towns throughout New York and across the Northeast,” said Ted Rose, Chief Executive Officer of Gravity Renewables.

What his company does is “reinvest in hydropower and, in turn, [create] stronger communities and a cleaner environment.”

So the dams are repaired in a way that’s mindful of their history and careful of the lakes. Then they’re put to work, generating electricity. But there are other benefits. The project would create “long-term investment in the community and job retention,” Rose said.

There’s not much that’s fancy about a dam. “A turbine? That’s pretty low-tech,” Brown said.

Low-tech means that local shops can do the repairs; broken parts don’t have to be sent out of the county.

Granted, hydro isn’t something that you stick on the cover of a magazine, necessarily. “It’s not this bright shiny object,” Brown said. “But I don’t think hydro can be forgotten” as we make our way toward a carbon-neutral future. “It’s our original renewable, it’s a readily available resource in New York State.”

The project is still in development and a location has not yet been announced. But Gravity Renewables has done similar work throughout New York, including at Waterloo in Tompkins County and Chittenden Falls in Stuyvesant, NY. “We’re very happy to have the opportunity to work with them,” Brown said. “They’re very community-focused.”

Which, ultimately, is critical.

“We need to recognize the value” of a hydro project, Brown said. “There’s a community value... We’re not creating electricity, we’re saving the lake.”

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