In “Power on the Hudson,” Robert Lifset eloquently retells the story of the 1960s dispute over construction of a pumped storage hydropower plant at Storm King Mountain in the Hudson Highlands.
Here’s an overview of what caused the controversy: Consolidated Edison, which supplies electricity and gas to the residents of New York City, saw a pumped storage plant, similar to the Blenheim-Gilboa project in Schoharie County, as a way to meet increasing electrical demand.
The Storm King plant would have pulled millions of gallons of Hudson River water about 1,400 feet to a reservoir near the mountaintop in the evening, when city power demand was low and utility power plants were not running at full capacity.
When demand peaked during the day, Con Ed would release the water and it would generate power as it flowed downhill through turbines.
As the project was reviewed, the public realized that moving a massive amount of Hudson River water through the plant would devastate the river’s fisheries. If the plant had been built, Capital Region residents might not be able to enjoy the wonderful spring striped bass fishery available today, or the quality of the river might have changed in other ways.
Some environmental groups participating in present-day state and national environmental issues were created during the dispute.
Lifset writes that Storm King’s opponents initially based their opposition on aesthetic values. But as the review of the plant proceeded, the concerns shifted from the relatively subjective field of aesthetics to more measurable ecological concerns, such as fisheries populations and water quality.
Riverkeeper, a Hudson River advocacy group that is now monitoring the oil trains that traverse the Capital Region, is the descendant of the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, a major plant opponent.
Riverkeeper is now involved in The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has its roots in the Storm King controversy. And Pete Seeger’s work with the sloop Clearwater is partly tied to Storm King.
“Power on the Hudson” is noteworthy for its thorough research. The second hearing about Storm King before the Federal Power Commission alone generated 351 exhibits from witnesses and over 12,500 pages of transcripts. Lifset appears to have read all of these pages — and the references in a 20-page bibliography.
A history professor at the University of Oklahoma, Lifset has roots locally. Several generations of his family were born and raised in Albany and Schenectady.
In addition to researching records, he interviewed as many of the participants in the dispute over Storm King as were available while he wrote the book. He spent considerable time interviewing people who worked with Con Ed, the communities that would be affected by the plant and plant opponents.
He superbly organizes and structures all this information. He writes clearly and, when appropriate, with a dry, ironic wit. For example, when he describes Con Ed’s unveiling of Storm King, he notes that the announcement came on the same day that Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published.
He explains complex technical, legal and regulatory information in a manner that general readers will understand. He knows that writing needs flow and rhythm. He knows when to tell the story with narration and when to step aside and quote the people who were there to explain what happened.
“Power on the Hudson” explains the forces that have shaped today’s Hudson as far north as the Capital Region, and the modern environmental movement. It will also help readers understand how ecology, politics and law are likely to affect whatever is the next breakthrough in energy.