With energy prices so high around the Great Lakes this winter, it couldbe almost every homeowner’s dream: telling the electric company to goaway. That’s exactly what some folks in northern New York have done. Enticed by the prospect of lower electric bills and ”green” power,they’ve installed family size hydroelectric power plants. The GreatLakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Moe profiles two northern New Yorkhouseholds that are bringing home the power of a nearby stream. They’veall the comforts of home, with no utility bills:
With energy prices so high around the Great Lakes this winter, it could be
almost every homeowner’s dream: telling the electric company to go away.
And that’s exactly what some folks in northern New York have done. Enticed by
The prospect of lower electric bills and “green” power, they’ve installed family
size hydroelectric power plants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd
Moe profiles two northern New York households that are bringing home the power
of a nearby stream. They’ve all the comforts of home, with no utility bills:
When Bryan Thompson first bought farmland in northern New York 20 years ago,
there were no power lines running along the nearby gravel township road.
And there still aren’t. Thompson built his farm knowing that that he’d have to
use alternative energy. He lived on the farm for four years with only candles,
flashlights and kerosene lanterns.
“Then in 1983 I put in my first solar panel and I had one light and a car
radio, and I felt like I was in heaven. I had such incredible luxuries.”
Bryan’s family has grown since the early 80’s to include his partner, Gary
Berk and their two kids, Isaac and Julia. And together, their electrical use has
Also increased. They now have a TV, stereo, VCR and a barn full of power tools.
So they needed to expand their energy options. After months of research, they
decided to harness the power of falling water.
(sound of walking)
On a brilliant sunny day Bryan makes an inspection of the hydro plant that
he and neighbor Chris Neurath built seven years ago. It’s about half a mile
from the house by way of a sheep pasture and meadow. The trail winds through
tall grasses and brambles until it ends at a grove of cedar trees and a gorge
that slopes nearly 70 feet down to Beaver creek. At a spot where the small creek
empties into a swamp, sits a wooden structure, the size of a kitchen
stove. it’s the heart of the hydro plant.
(sound of the whirling of the turbines as brian lifts off the lid of the
“This is the turbine right here. It’s a modified Ford truck alternator made
in Canada. It’s a great little unit. It’s been rewired. Puts out 240 AC.
From each of these, we get about 200 watts per generator. We have two in the
winter and one in the summer. One runs a heater to keep it from freezing.”
A turbine is the part of the hydroelectric system that spins. Water comes
into the power plant through irrigation hoses. It then hits a series of cupped
blades, like a paddle-wheel on a steamboat, that spin the turbine, and the
spinning generates electricity. Buried cables carry the electricity to the
Thompson-Berk farm, and their neighbor, Chris Neurath, a mile away, where it ‘s
stored in banks of batteries.
Rather than add more solar panels or build a wind generator, Neurath says
they found Beaver creek to be the cheapest option for making electricity.
“If you have a stream that’s running most of the year, or all of the year,
you’re making power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And even if it’s a
relatively small amount, in a home power system, you’re often, off-grid, you’re
storing it in batteries. So, all night long when you’re not using
electricity, you’re storing it up and then you’re use it during the day or whenever you
use it. So, hydro per dollar of equipment invested, usually you get the most
Setting up a hydro facility and maintaining it isn’t easy. And it’s
expensive, at least to build. It took six weeks for Bryan Thompson and Chris Neurath
to install their micro hydroplant, at a total cost of 20-thousand dollars.
Some experts say operating hydro powered homes are more expensive than those
receiving electricity from the power grid. Neurath says he estimates an
average cost, including initial capital costs of up to 500 dollars per year
for each household. He says the biggest yearly expense is buying replacement
batteries for the storage system, and he adds conservation of power is a
Bryan Thompson says it’ll likely be years before micro-hydro power systems
become as widely used as solar panels. They’re not as standardized or easy
to build and maintain as photovoltaics, but the time and expense are worth it.
“When they had the ice storm in 1998, everything worked here. That made me
really appreciate our independence. We had power when other people didn’t.
Also, it’s clean power. It’s not made by nuclear energy or polluting the
air, burning fossil fuels, etc, and that’s really important.”
This winter marks the eighth year the Thompson-Berk and Neurath households
Have relied on hydro power. It’s part of what they call their commitment to
renewable electricity, and an attitude of stewardship and living with the
land, rather than from it.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Todd Moe.