In the small eastern Adirondack community of Wadhams, a wood-sided building with rusted metal roof extends along the top of the rocky bank of the Boquet River. Its various sections join to each other with a sense of purpose that grows from adding space as a need arises, laterally along the bank and over the side in an addition suspended over the water.
If you stand outside, close to the door, you can hear a rumble coming from inside. It tells the story of the unlikely things that happened when a pursuit of artistic glass blowing intersected with the painful squeeze of the 1970s energy crunch.
Pass through that door in the company of owner Matt Foley and you see that the rumble, now a dull roar, comes from a hulking assembly of four-foot pipe leading into a turbine that powers a shaft that drives the wheels of an electric generator. A wall on the far side sports the levers, gauges, and gizmos that control the equipment. The place looks like you’d imagine Thomas Edison’s garage might appear. In fact, the gauges bear the General Electric name and a patent date of 1896.
This is the generating station of River Rat Glass & Electric, and it’s a thoroughly Adirondack place: burly and utilitarian with a mix of cobbled-together ingenuity, a literal connection to place, self-sufficiency, and respect for renewable resources.
The water that drops forty-eight feet from a dammed pond has been a source of power since settlers established mills in the early 1800s. Daniel Payne built the hydro plant in 1904 as electrical technology was developing rapidly. It had a transmission line running to Mineville to help power the iron mine. Four years later, he started supplying electricity to local houses.
Foley entered the scene in 1976, moving to Wadhams from Vermont as part of a quest to find a better way to power a glass-blowing studio. He had been creating glass pieces in Vermont when trouble hit.
“The original energy crisis came along, and we had a thousand-gallon propane tank that we had to fill up every three weeks. Suddenly the price doubled. I liked blowing glass, but I didn’t like buying the gas. I was feeling a little guilty about burning all this stuff just to make beautiful things for people with disposable income to buy.”
He thought hydroelectric power offered a way to escape the grip of the oil producers, and he set out to look at old dams. He started in Vermont and New Hampshire but eventually found this one in Wadhams.
A glass artist with a degree in psychology, he had no idea how to fix up and operate the plant. When he acquired it, one generator had been destroyed by lightning. The four-hundred-foot pipeline that carried water from the dam to the plant was bad. The year after he bought it, the dam washed out.
But much of the electrical equipment was intact, and with his wife, Elizabeth, Foley found and adapted used pipe. He studied the technology and restored equipment. And with the help of a previous manager, he brought one generator on line. At first, he wanted only enough electricity to power his electric melting furnaces so he could resume glass blowing. He did that for a time but eventually received an interest-free loan from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and became an electricity producer, selling power to the grid. That meant getting a second generator operating.
Now, with both generators working, the plant can produce four hundred kilowatts of electricity in the best conditions, enough to power four hundred homes. But output varies with water levels, and the annual average is two hundred kilowatts. Foley is also partner in a hydro plant in St. Regis Falls.
So has the venerable plant lived up to the vision of s attractive about small hydropower from the viewpoint of energy policy.
“Nothing,” he says. “Don’t do it.”
The problem is that while federal law requires utilities to purchase power from small producers, the prices are not set. When he first went on line, the market price was 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour.
Then the state legislature passed a law setting a floor of six cents per kilowatt hour, and that was enough to make a go of it and even build the St. Regis Falls power plant. Then the law was repealed, and prices rose and fell. The current rate of four cents per kilowatt hour is not enough, Foley says. “That doesn’t pay bills.”
“We can stumble along and pay the day-to-day expenses, but we’re using equipment that’s over one hundred years old.” That means more costs as it requires replacement.
In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene sent floodwaters surging down the region’s rivers, including the Boquet. “Irene set us back years,” Foley says. It did $50,000 in uninsured damage to the parking lot, the building, and a generator. He has yet to recover. “Rates are very low now, so all that $50,000 is debt that’s kind of hanging out there and not getting paid.”
So in Adirondack fashion Foley and his small hydro natural resources and at times being pummeled by them; making a living through ingenuity and self-sufficiency yet feeling controlled by distant economic forces beyond his reach.
Will he continue?
“I have no choice.”