Small  hydropower plants say New York needs to help keep their clean power competitive

Sep 20, 2019
Originally published on September 20, 2019 4:57 pm


Owners of existing clean energy power plants in New York say they’d like the same support from the state for their businesses that new ones get.  

Jim Besha’s engineering firm runs what he said is the oldest continuously operating hydroelectric plant. Built in 1897, it’s housed in a compact brick building that spans the upper Hudson River, outside Mechanicville. 

Its seven generators were designed by General Electric scientist Charles Steinmetz, one of the founders of alternating current. Besha said the dam in the early days supplied power for the entire Capital Region. Since no one had power in their homes and most businesses were not electrified, that meant the electricity needed to flow only to the GE plant in Schenectady and electric streetcars in five nearby cities. 

“This plant is also believed to be the birthplace, the starting place, of the modern electrical grid,” Besha said. 

The turbines underneath the building churn in the water and operate essentially like water wheels. It’s a refreshingly simple technology, although in modern times, it is run by computer and can be monitored through Besha’s iPhone.

It produces power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as long as the river keeps running and there’s regular rainfall, Besha said. 

“We like to say a day without rain is a day without sunshine,” Besha said with a laugh. "We love it when it rains."  

The plant now generates enough power for 3,000 to 4,000 homes, but it could generate enough for 18,000 homes a day, if it had some upgrades.

But Besha said the price for its power is just 2½ cents per kilowatt-hour, down from 6 to 8 cents several years ago. That's not enough to make needed capital investments. The reason is competition from cheaper natural gas.  

Neighboring New England states direct electric utilities to subsidize prices to make the clean energy sources more competitive. But New York offers incentives only for new clean energy plants, not existing ones. 

A bill passed by the Legislature earlier this year and awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature would change that.  

Anne Reynolds with the Clean Energy Alliance of New York said utilities are already required to buy a portion of their electricity from new clean energy sources. The bill would guarantee that the utilities would also buy power from the older sources, by requiring that the price be set at a slightly lower rate -- 75% of the going rate for the power from the new sources.

Costs would be funded through an existing crediting program. The result would boost prices for Jim Besha’s dam and dozens of others like it, as well as several existing wind power projects around the state.  

“We see it as a real gap,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said New York is required to meet very ambitious goals for clean energy and be 70% carbon-free by 2030, and derive 100% of the state’s energy from noncarbon sources by 2050. 

Besha doesn’t view the measure as a handout. He said the state takes credit for the clean power generated by his plant and others like it, and uses that to help meet its carbon reduction goals.

“I don’t look it as a subsidy,” he said. "It's simply being fair."

Besha’s company operates two other hydrodams and would like to build several more. He said there’s a lot of potential in New York state to expand hydroelectric power, and the untapped power is estimated to be equivalent to power generated by one nuclear plant.

But he said in order to expand, he may have to sell the power for more money out of state, unless Cuomo signs the bill.