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Small NY Hydropower Plants Seek Equal Support

Owners of clean energy power plants in New York say they’d like the same support from the state for their businesses that new ones get. Capitol Correspondent Karen DeWitt visited a historic 120-year-old hydroelectric dam, to find out what the energy producers say is needed.

Jim Besha’s engineering firm runs what he says 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. 

It’s seven generators were designed by General Electric scientist Charles Steinmetz, one of the founders of alternating current. Besha says 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 need only flow to the GE plant in Schenectady and electric street cars 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 I-Phone. And it produces power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as long as the river keeps running and there’s regular rainfall, says Besha. 

“We like to say a day without rain is a day without sunshine,” Besha says, with a laugh.  

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 says the price for its power is just two and half cents per kilowatt hour, down from six to eight cents several years ago, 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 Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature would change that.  

Anne Reynolds, with the Clean Energy Alliance of New York, says 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 rate slightly lower, 75% of the going rate for the power from the new renewables. 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. "We're really depending on those existing renewables for 26% of the electricity we have now that is renewable. We don't want those facilities to either close down or export their renewable electricity to other states."

Reynolds says 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 non-carbon sources by 2050.  

Besha doesn’t view the measure as a handout. He says 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 says. "It's simply being fair. Paying us for what we already produce and what the state takes credit for. We have to document to the state every year how much carbon-free generation we make. They [the state] keep track of that in a database and essentially they are taking credit for it in thier energy goals. Which is fine as long as they compenstate for producing that power." 

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

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

But he says in order to expand, if Cuomo doesn’t sign the bill, he may have to sell the power out of state.


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