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Power water; Upgrade set at 1815 hydroelectric plant.

Byline: John Dignam

WEBSTER - Whatever the age of the replacement turbine to be installed at Webster Hydroelectric Co., it will be new compared to the turbine it replaces, which was installed in 1815 when the plant was built.

Company owner Lucas W. Wright said the vintage turbine powered the Slater Woolen Mill, later Anglo Fabrics, in the North Village area. The teeth of the turbine's gears, while not original, are made of wood.

"This is one of the places where the Industrial Revolution started" in the United States, Mr. Wright said earlier this week while checking the Mill Street hydroelectric plant on the French River.

This town was founded by Samuel Slater, considered the father of the American cotton textile industry, who died here in 1835. The hydro plant played a role in that revolution, and some of its equipment is still used. Now, it generates electricity to power homes.

The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative has awarded the company a $125,000 grant to install a smaller, refurbished turbine, as well as a new generator, upgraded switchgear and controls, and to repair the canal walls.

"This is such a shot in the arm," Mr. Wright said. "There are a lot of repair and maintenance needs. This will help build up revenue so the plant can be self-sustaining. There hasn't been any revenue coming out of this plant that hasn't gone back into it."

Mr. Wright said the smaller turbine will run better, provide more control over the amount of water used, and use the river's water more efficiently. It will also probably help the plant to stay in business, he said.

Amy Barad, project manager for the MTC clean energy program, said Mr. Wright's grant application was a rare, unsolicited request and the grant was awarded because "it was a good proposal that offers an opportunity for adding to the state's supply of clean, renewable energy."

She said it would allow the facility to operate during more of the year and to benefit the environment because the new equipment "will manage the flow in the river in a more stable fashion." She also said the additional revenue the improvements will bring to the company "will help maintain the property."

According to MTC, electricity is created by a river's running water causing a turbine to spin, with generators then transforming that rotational energy into electricity.

The MTC is responsible for awarding grants from the Renewable Energy Trust to support clean energy technologies. The trust is funded through surcharges on electric bills.

Ms. Barad said most grants go to small wind and solar power projects and that there is little information on the existing hydro facilities on Massachusetts rivers. She said few grants are sought for hydro projects, but that MTC is actively working to change that.

"We want to develop a program to address the issues the small hydro owners face so we don't lose this resource. With hydro, you don't need to build anything new on a new site. Most just need some rehab," she said.

The Webster Hydroelectric Company is one of five small hydroelectric facilities owned by Ware River Power Co. There are two others in Barre and two in Ware, all on the Ware River. Power generated by this plant is sold to the Holden and Princeton municipal light departments.

The historic turbine here, one of two in the plant, is inefficient and oversized, designed to pull as much water as possible from the river to power the mill, according to Mr. Wright, of Hardwick. The one that will be replaced has not worked in a decade. The other one has a modern generator.

Electricity generated the last two decades here has been uneven, in part because of the irregularity of the water supply, but also because old equipment cannot adjust to that irregularity.

The plant has generated about 500,000 kilowatts of electricity each of the last three years, which Mr. Wright called "three years of good water." But in the mid-1990s the plant generated about 250,000 kilowatts a year, sometimes 100,000 kilowatts.

With improvements, it could generate 1 million kilowatts annually.

It takes an average of 1.5 kilowatts an hour to provide power to a house today, up from 1 kilowatt an hour a few years ago, according to Mr. Wright.

But the profits are small for hydro plants, he said, adding that the most Ware River Power Co. has made for electricity was 8 cents per kilowatt hour in the early 1980s and that it has not matched that price since then.

David W. Wright, Lucas Wright's father, who is retired, started Ware River Power Company in the early 1980s. The younger Mr. Wright, 36, said he began working with his father when he 10 years old.

And, like his father, he said he has a passion for the old hydro facilities.

"The focus in renewable energy is on wind and photovoltaic (solar energy), but hydro power is already developed. And, it's completely renewable. A hydro plant downstream will use the same water we use here," he said.

Mr. Wright said the company's four other plants are along 20 miles of the Ware River and "they use the water in that river four times a day. It's the same stuff."

Mr. Wright said low profits make it difficult to modernize equipment and keep up the buildings of the many hydro plants, many of which were built in the 19th century to power mills.

He compared small hydro facilities to small farms, noting "we've lost a lot of small farms, and we could lose the small hydro facilities."


CUTLINE: (1) Lucas Wright of Webster Hydroelectric, shown at the canal which serves the plant along the French River. (2) Lucas Wright of Webster Hydroelectric holds a wooden tooth from a gear set that dates back many years.

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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 12, 2007
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