Paul Eckhoff saw a utility in the dilapidated hydroelectric dam at Chittenden Falls in Columbia County.
The year was 1981, and the newly minted president of Chittenden Falls Hydro Power was preparing to overhaul the 171-year-old dam on the Kinderhook Creek. Time, however, hadn’t been kind to the structure, which sat precariously close to complete ruin.
“By almost anyone’s standards, the scene as a whole was repulsive, depressing, defeating,” wrote John McPhee, an at-large writer who penned a story about the dam for New Yorker magazine in February 1982. “To Paul Eckhoff, when he saw it, it looked like a four-ton nugget.”
Federal legislation in the late 1970s had given rise to so-called minihydro companies — small start-up operations like Eckhoff’s business that saw money in generating power from dams. The concept seemed like one that could spread, perhaps helping to lessen the dependence on fossil fuel.
Fast forward to the present. The falls with a 34-foot head and an average annual flow of 442 cubic-feet-per-second — enough to power roughly 250 homes — is about to have a new purpose: providing 18 percent of the power needed to energize a small liberal arts school about 65 miles north.
Skidmore College has partnered with Gravity Renewables — a small, Colorado-based operator and developer of small hydroelectric power plants — to again harness power generated by Chittenden Falls. Under the 20-year agreement announced between the college and Gravity Renewables last week, Skidmore will reduce its carbon footprint by about 3,000 tons per year.
Coupled with the 2.6 million kilowatt hours of electricity the college will generate annually with its 6,950 ground-mounted solar panels, the college will derive about 30 percent of its energy needs through renewable sources.
Skidmore President Philip Glotzbach lauded the addition of the hydroelectric as a “path-breaking rebirth” of the dam facility on the Kinderhook.
“Both projects show how we can develop new, environmentally responsible and cost-effective energy sources through new partnerships and creative thinking,” he said.
Like the reuse of the dam under Eckhoff three decades earlier, the agreement between the college and Gravity Renewables was made possible by a change in legislation. In 2012, state legislators added microhydroelectric dams to the list of power-generating facilities eligible for remote net metering — a process of recording electricity produced at a facility and using it to credit a consumer in another location.
The agreement between Skidmore and Gravity Renewables is the first of its kind in the country. Power generated at Chittenden Falls is transmitted to National Grid, which then forwards renewable energy credits to offset the cost of Skidmore’s energy usage.
Aside from lowering the college’s carbon footprint, the agreement also allows Skidmore to lock in competitive power rates. As a result, spikes in the cost of energy will have less of an impact on the college’s utility bills.
“We are locking in both cost savings and a clean, reliable and predictable source of power for decades to come,” said Michael Hall, special assistant to the college’s vice president for finance and administration. “That’s what makes this project work.”
The partnership between Skidmore and Gravity Renewables also includes an educational component. As part of an overhaul of the hydroelectric facility, the company will provide an on-site classroom to serve as a learning resource for students and faculty.
“Skidmore College is establishing itself as a renewable energy leader,” said Ted Rose, CEO of Gravity Renewables.
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