Mother's Hydroelectric Plant

It took a little innovation and improvisation, but in 1980 MOTHER EARTH NEWS was able to set up a 110 volt AC hydropower plant on a low-head stream on their property.

| November/December 1980

  • 066 hydroelectric plant - visitors inspection
    One purpose of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' hydroelectric plant is to serve as an education tool for summer seminars.
    PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - pouring concrete, variable wideth pulley
    TOP: Our construction crew prepares to pour the concrete for the civil works. BOTTOM: A system of variable pulleys automatically controls the alternator RPM. 
    PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - generator
    At over 900 pounds, the powerplant wasn't easy to maneuver.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - HEXact controller
    "The brain" of the plant's unique HEXact speed control system resides behind the control panel.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - turbine and nozzle
    The turbine and nozzle before concrete was cast around them.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - digging a cofferdam
    One of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' hard-working Eco-Village employees digs a cofferdam to allow the installation of ten-inch intake pipe.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

  • 066 hydroelectric plant - visitors inspection
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - pouring concrete, variable wideth pulley
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - generator
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - HEXact controller
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - turbine and nozzle
  • 066 hydroelectric plant - digging a cofferdam

Thirty years ago, when nuclear power was little more than a scientific dream (and hadn't yet had the chance to become a nightmare), hydropower provided roughly 15% of the electricity consumed in the United States. But now — with the advent of the "atomic age" — water-generated power accounts for a mere 5% of our electricity ... because of the idling of older hydroelectric plants and a lack of new construction, coupled with a dramatic rise in this country's consumption of power.

Yet today, despite its much-decreased role, hydropower is one of the least expensive (and, perhaps, most environmentally benign) sources of electricity available in the nation. In an age when the costs of fossil-fueled and nuclear-fired plants are soaring, renewable hydroelectric energy seems to be on the verge of rebirth.

You might be surprised to know, however, that the "water power awakening" is not coming in the form of huge dams and multimegawatt turbines. Instead, it's happening on a small (and in many cases private) scale. During the 1970's, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified over 20,000 existing U.S. dams potentially suitable for hydroelectric development. And the combination of ever-increasing kilowatt-hour costs, electronic improvements that allow the construction of automatic hydropower controls, and available tax credits for renewable energy is making it economically attractive for almost anyone with an adequate creek to develop his or her own power-producing site.

As it happens, MOTHER EARTH NEWS' Eco-Village had — when we acquired the property — a prime example of a dam and reservoir just begging to have a hydroelectric plant installed. So, during the summer of 1979, we began searching for equipment to build our own plant ... a task which proved to be easier said than done!



There were, it seems, a number of factors which narrowed our potential sources. First, because the Eco-Village dam is only 15 feet high, most of the standard packages — which include high-head Pelton wheels — were out of the question. Furthermore, the nearest structure for which the water-watts could be used was already built and wired for standard AC voltage. And our decision to be independent of the utility demanded that we employ either a DC generator and inverter or an AC alternator.

The cost of each approach proved to be shocking, so we turned to a hydropower consulting firm in Los Angeles (Energy Research & Applications) for some assistance in coming up with an acceptable system in terms of both capability and price. ER&A's hydrotechnical engineer, George Balalau, combined a number of established concepts to form a package which, to the best of our knowledge, is unique ... and which, for the many people faced with problems similar to those that we encountered, could represent a bona fide home hydropower breakthrough!

Tawn_1
9/4/2008 5:48:14 PM

I am looking for a turbine system to run in a river with constant flow (major WA river with plenty of flow). My concern is something small enough to remove or move during heavy rains since the river floods almost every year and I don't want it damaged or swept downstream. what do you recommend?


Jeff Grebe_1
7/29/2008 9:30:05 AM

I don't think your "totally new" speed controller will work. In a hydro plant you need to balance the energy not just the speed. If electric load is removed from the alternator the energy of the incoming water increases the speed of the alternator until the outgoing energy is in balance (adding Hz and voltage until the kw out = kw in. Adding a variable pitch pulley will attempt to reduce the speed of the alternator but in doing so multiplies the incoming energy - causing the alternator to speed up! You have a cross - control - your attempt to limit speed will have the opposite effect. And no it won't work the other way either. You need to scrub or add energy not mechanical advantage.


Jeff Grebe_2
7/29/2008 9:25:36 AM

I don't think your "totally new" speed controller will work. In a hydro plant you need to balance the energy not just the speed. If electric load is removed from the alternator the energy of the incoming water increases the speed of the alternator until the outgoing energy is in balance (adding Hz and voltage until the kw out = kw in. Adding a variable pitch pulley will attempt to reduce the speed of the alternator but in doing so multiplies the incoming energy - causing the alternator to speed up! You have a cross - control - your attempt to limit speed will have the opposite effect. And no it won't work the other way either. You need to scrub or add energy not mechanical advantage.







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