What may be the fastest-growing alternative energy source in the Northeast is one that is natural, renewable, non-polluting, native, and being resisted by some very large power companies. It's called water.
Henry Griffin of Collinsville, Conn., is working to restore a hydroelectric power plant that he helped chop up into scrap metal a dozen years ago.
In West Carthage, N.Y., Mary Jane Hirschey wants to generate power from her dam on the Black River that was producing electricity until 1963.
The 10,000 citizens of Springfield, Vt., have voted to spend $38 million to restore the generating capacity of six dams and to form a municipal power company and take over distribution from the investor-owned utility.
Water power built New England and made it prosperous. But over the last 60 years, the advent of cheap oil and gas and giant utility companies and had no use for small hydro projects killed off New England's small power stations.
"Now we're returning to the river," says Vermont State Sen. Chester Scott, one of the backers of the Springfield project.
The 1973 oil embargo, quadrupled oil prices, two severe winters and depressing economic conditions in the Northeast have revived interest in small hydroelectric sites that would have been considered uneconomical 10 years ago.
The Department of Energy has ear-marked $10 million for study and development of "low head" hydroelectric projects this year, and if the energy bill passes Congress it would provide $100 million a year for three years for renovation of existing dams. By the federal government's definition, low-head dams are those less than 64 feet high, with a production capacity less than 15 megawatts.
Some of the dams being looked at are as low as the four-foot one at Helen Winter's Grist Mill antique store at Farmington, Conn. It could light and heat only one building, while others could light a town.
"This is what created the industrial revolution in New England. We had sawmills, grist mills, every kind of factory - and they all ran on water," says Griffin.
New England and New York have many abandoned hydropower sites because they were settled early when water and wood were the only sources of power.
"These existing dams are pretty well confined to the original 13 Colonies," Lawrence Falick of the Department of Energy said.
For years, utility companies concerned with vast power grids and with huge plants like the nuclear ones that produce 1,000 megawatts have scorned little dam sites as an obsolete technology.
Officials of all the northeastern state energy offices describe the large utility companies as less that enthusiastic about developing small hydroelectric projects - even ones that they own.
"They destroyed our dam so that there would be no competition from small resources," Griffin says bluntly. "I don't think the papers were signed a minute before they were in there cutting up the generators."
Griffin signed on for $50 to help the scrap metal company cut up the generators at the Collinsville dam after the Hartford electric company bought it. Now, as a member of the town conservation commission, he is seeking one of the Department of Energy grants to study the feasibility of reviving the dam.
Donham Crawford, president of the Edison Electric Institute, representing the nation's-investor-owned utilities, denies that power companies oppose developing small sites,
"We have no desire to do anybody in," Crawford said. "We're all for hdro, but the question is whether it's economic or not."
Edison Electric represents about 200 companies that produce over 75 percent of the nation's electric power.
"It's my feeling that the large, investor-owned utilities will pay a lot of lip service to small hydro and basically fear it," said Bob Mauro, energy research director of the American Public Power Association, which represents publicly owned companies.
The fear is that a community with a dam will divorce its power company and form a municipal utility, as Springfield is trying to do.
The Vermont comminity has spent more than $500,000 preparing its move, and part of the plan may be decided in court. In addition to activating the dam, the town wants to seize the distribution system now operated by the state's largest electric utility, Central Vermont Public Service Corp.
"We're going to sit down with them for what I call the waltz of the partridges," Sen. Scott said. "We'll flap our wings and see if there's anyone who can't stand to be in the room. "I'm cautiously optimistic, but we've been disappointed by them before."
John Mullen of Central Vermont Public Service said, "We're not interested in having them take over our distribution system. It'll end in litigation." Central Vermont believes that. Springfield's engineering studies overstate the potential of its dams and that the town's project is headed for financial disaster, Mullen aid.
Scott said Springfield was motivated by the worldwide shortage of energy:
"This energy bind is going to get worse, and the only resources we've got up here are water and wood. When the real crunch comes, we don't kid ourselves that tiny Vermont is going to be able to swing a very big axe in Washington. We better take care of ourselves."
Springfield shares a problem with many other places interested in developing hydroelectric power from existing dams.
"Some of us feel that we are victims of an unfair pricing structure," Scott said.
Typically, utilities buy power cheap and sell it dear. What they pay to anyone offering to feed power into their grid is the cost to them of throwing that is paying larger suppliers five not the total cost of the power.
A man with excess power from a small dam might be offered half a cent per kilowatt hour by a utility that is paying larger suppliers five times that, according to Falick of DOE. At such prices, it doesn't pay the man to put his dam into production.
Similarly, a small businessman who wants to use electricity he generates most of the time but also wants to keep the local utility as a back-up finds that the utility will charge almost as much to stand by without selling him power as it bills him now for the power he uses.
Crawford explains that the utility has to maintain the equipment and capacity even if it isn't being used against the time the stand-by customer needs power and that the utility needs to be compensated for its trouble.
"I don't know of any solution, because it's a question of economics," he said.
In Collinsville, Conn., promoters of the dam hope to use the power to cut the town's $200,000 annual bill for street lighting and municipal buildings. Mary Jane Hirschey hopes her hydropower can be used by nearby industries or for a new community that could be built on Tannery Island, where the power plant is.
No one is certain what sort of agreement can be reached with utility companies.
Griffin believes that because of the world's energy shortage the courts are going to tell utilities, "Look, you've got to cooperate."
"All of us lawyers will be kept pretty busy," joked Alan Johnson of the Massachusetts energy office, in discussing the many issues likely to reach litigation in one place or another as low-head hydro develops.
At some places it is not clear who Elsewhere, questions arise whether a Eleswhere, questionsarise whether a private individual selling power is thereby a utility and must be regulated by the government. The government is likely to have to consider whether it can say to utilities that it wants hydropower and therefore it wants utilities to buy such power at reasonable rates.
No one claims that low-head hydro-electric power is the answer to the energy crisis. The Army Corps of Engineers forecasts maximum potential from such sites at 26,000 megawatts, which would be the rough equivalent of 26 nuclear power plants.
But each dam is a very small fraction of the total. Hirschey's would produce 2 megawatts, for example.
According to a study by the federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 228 small hydro plants were abandoned in New England over the last 30 years. These presumably would be the easiest to bring back on line.
"I think small hydro definitely has arrived," said Richard McDonald of DOE.
No one knows exactly how many dams there are around the country, but 50,000 is a generally accepted guess. States like New York that take hydropower seriously are taking a census. Record keeping has been so slopply that people have had to travel out to sites to see what sort of dam was there and whether it ever produced electric power.
Allis-Chalmers also believes small hydro has arrived. After 20 years of making small turbines and other parts only as replacements, the company has a new line of 10 standardized turbines ready for what general manager Goertz Pfafflin foresees as a strong demand. The much smaller Leffel Co. in Springfield, Ohio, is another U.S. manufacturer.
In addition to saving fuels, hydroelectric power has the potential to revive some New England towns that have fallen into decay, Susan Barney of the Connecticut energy office said. If old manufacturing and mill towns have a cheap local source of power, as they did when they flourished in the 1800s, they might attract new industries.
"Small hydro is an all-winning thing," said J.D. Brown, deputy executive director of the American Public Power Association. HE said that a small dam might keep one industry open for a few extra weeks in a situation like the coal strike.
He would like to see the federal government go beyond its present support for restoration of exisiting dam sites and help fund construction of new dams.
"The government's been negative -- at least cautions -- about new hydro," Brown said. "They seem to be saying, 'It's a good thing but let's not let it happen any more.'"