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Matt Foley checks the meters at his power plant in Wadhams, NY (Photos:  Brian Mann)
Matt Foley checks the meters at his power plant in Wadhams, NY (Photos: Brian Mann)

Electricity glut threatens North Country's green power industry

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Yesterday, we reported on New York's growing reliance on electricity produced Canada. A new project now in the works would pipe enough energy from hydro dams in Quebec to power a million homes in New York City.

The North Country has also seen a boom in energy production in recent years, with new wind farms, wood pellet plants, and biomass. But with more and more competition, and the lingering economic downturn, electric rates have plummeted.

That's putting pressure on small-scale producers of electricity, including companies trying to generate green, carbon-free energy. A biomass plant in Chateaugay, in Clinton County, laid off 13 workers last month. And many of the region's small hydro dams are also struggling.

This morning, Brian Mann profiles one dam operator in the Adirondacks who says without big regulatory changes, some green energy producers won't survive.

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Despite decades of Yankee ingenuity, Foley's plant needs major reinvestment and new quipment to survive

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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 Matt Foley trudges across a snowy field to the bank of the Boquet River. 

There’s a bright winter sun striking sparks on the ice. But Foley’s eye is drawn to the small details, the bits of river chaff, the last clumps of autumn leaves, the sticks.

"Beaver sticks, which is what those are. Drives us crazy. Get a very few of those in there and you've lost ten percent of your output," he says.

A couple minutes walk downriver, just below the old dam, sits an old hydro-electric generating plant, built back in 1904.

This is where Foley harnesses the Boquet River, translating rain and snowmelt into raw electricity.

"Our turbine uses about 120 cubic feet of water per second and we're operating wide open right now."

The power plant perches on the riverbank, literally dangling out over the current. 

Inside, it looks like something out of a museum or an episode of Downton Abbey, all brass fittings, old fashioned meters and dials.

"The outside, the casing [of the turbine] is the original from 1904. The innards, the actual turbine was put in in 1939," Foley says.

Foley also runs a small dam in St. Regis Falls, generating enough power for about 600 homes, including most of the town of Westport.   

He put these dams back on line, beginning in the late 1970s, the way other people repair old cars or fix up an old house, using scavenged equipment, home-made parts.

"This is another salvage job. This [turbine] came from near Saranac Lake. It was originally installed as the power supply in the old Saranac Inn."

Foley literally prowled the Adirondack woods, finding old generator parts near Speculator, salvaging gear out of the old Lake Placid Club. 

He also had to train himself how to do all this stuff.

"When I got here I had a BA in psychology and I was the child of an office worker. I was completely ignorant.  What it comes down to is if you don't know how to do something, just start. Make a start somewhere and if you're doing it right, you'll find that out. And if you're doing it wrong, you'll find that out, too."

Foley, who’s 63 years old came to this work sort of by accident. He started out looking for a way to power a glass blowing furnace and he’s spent half his life in what you might call the mom-and-pop electricity business.

Along the way, he’s survived floods and dam failures and equipment blow-outs and all those beaver sticks getting jammed in the turbine. But these his company is struggling.

"Right now the price is the lowest I've seen it in thirty years," Foley says.

At one time, Foley worked with long-term contracts that offered a price between 6 and 11 cents per kilowatt hour. These days, he’s getting between 3 and 4 cents per kilowatt hour.

In part that’s because the recession killed demand, but it’s also because of power generators that use coal and natural gas, commodities that are cheaper than ever.

"We're not putting anything into the atmosphere, we're not having any environmental impact, but we have to compete with people who are putting holes in the ground, extracting it and burning it, who are not paying anything for the emissions...which is affecting everyone."

With the hydrofracking boom, natural gas has become even cheaper, making it even harder for guys like Foley to compete.

But Foley says there may be an answer, an approach to local power generation similar to the CSA community agriculture model that’s led to the revival of North Country farms.

"You can do what's called 'community net metering.' Basically, you go out and sign people up. And they balance their consumption off the production at your plant and you get whatever they're paying, which is around 14 cents per kilowatt hour."

That kind of approach, giving more money to the power producers rather than the people who operate the distribution system, would require big regulatory changes in Albany. 

Foley says he’d also like to see established hydro dams included in the state’s green energy portfolio. That would clear the way for easier financing. 

Without those reforms, he says, there could be a future where this dam and the one in St. Regis Falls go dark.

"You do have to reinvest in these things periodically, or you're going to lose them. That's why we're having a real problem with that. Both our plants need some reinvestment and we can't do it."

Foley’s dams are part of North Country history, part of a culture that has long harnessed these wild rivers, powering industries and communities.

But without changes in the way energy markets work, they could also follow the long history of decline, joining the dozens of old plants that already sit abandoned at rivers edge.

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