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Monday, October 24, 2011

Bring back hydro power

Time to Reinvent State's River Water Wheels

By TRICIA K. JEDELE/special to ecoRI News 
The Main Street bridge and mills 
on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket
circa 1860. (Photo courtesy of the 
Pawtucket Research History Center)

As a native Rhode Islander, growing up along the banks of the Pawtuxet River, and, as an avid environmentalist, the injuries and injustices tied to our industrial history are not lost on me.

But, as I drive over the Pawtuxet every day on my way to work, past the sleeping Lippitt Mill in West Warwick — once a global lace and linen manufacturing giant — and past the Royal Mills, which once held a commanding place among the great cloth makers, producing more than 50 million yards of “Fruit of the Loom” cloth annually, I notice only our collective lack of connection to our river — and the subsequent lack of concern for its vitality that flows from that disconnect.

Our mills have stopped operating. The industries, once housed in them, have moved elsewhere. Our river communities, once manufacturing giants, now struggle with the many financial and physical quandaries of how to fill the voids created by the now-empty mill space and industrial vacancies. There seems only a lingering, collective ambivalence toward the rivers— ambivalence that comes from a community losing its ability to sustain and provide for itself; to survive by its own industriousness; to negotiate a modern-day quid pro quo with its natural resources.
This article offers one possible model to defeat that persistent and growing ambivalence and to foster a modern-day relationship with our rivers — an approach that might allow us to address climate change, other environmental issues, and our economic needs at the same time.
Hydropower was once king in Rhode Island
(ecoRI News file photo)
Rhode Islanders often recite with great pride that all of the textile mills that sprang to their feet to take their place in the industrial revolution were born from the ingenuity of Samuel Slater, who, at the age of 19, and at the end of the 18th century, built the first cotton mill in America, in Pawtucket on the banks of the Blackstone River. But, we also know that the mills didn’t sustain the industrial revolution or economic growth for the masses by the mere brick and mortar of the mill structures themselves. The mills relied on the lifeblood of the farmers and the villages where they were built — the rivers.
The Blackstone, the Branch and the Pawtuxet rivers were used and misused in the building of an industrialized America, as were the waves of Irish, Polish, Portuguese, Italian and French-Canadian immigrant families and their children working in the mills.
While these early days of the industrial revolution represented the beginning of sustained economic growth for the masses in the United States, this growth wasn’t sustainable.
The participants in this new economy gave little thought to the health of the resources upon which growth depended, human or otherwise. The rivers were poisoned and the workers mistreated, and eventually, as a result, the industrial revolution would give rise to labor and environmental revolutions.
Whether we reflect on this history with great pride or disgust, or whether we choose to romanticize and glorify this history or look at it through a cynical and microscopic lens, the fact is that these grand mills, the dams, the mill owners and their reliance on our ancestors and our majestic rivers are a part of our identity. To defeat ambivalence toward our rivers, and to restore the vital connection with them, we need our rivers to work alongside us for as long as we have to work ourselves.
But, we can reinvent the wheel. We can return to the rivers today as a source of clean energy and a new economy with a memory of the historical mistakes made and an eye toward sustainability and system-wide decision-making.
Reinventing the wheel
For the past two years, the Conservation Law Foundation has been working with a number of municipal and private partners to explore the idea of installing run-of-river hydropower at existing dams along the Blackstone River.
There are a number of reasons why the Conservation Law Foundation is interested in helping to facilitate a multiple–municipal energy collaborative that relies on the power of the Blackstone River.
It’s important for the overall health of the river that it be economically relevant. Allowing communities along the Blackstone River to derive responsibly a source of their economies from the river is an important connection to restore.
Identifying a secure funding source will allow for more municipal flexibility to engage in the long-term planning and investments that can restore financial stability and sustainability at the local level. Energy savings generated from reliance on river power will allow for that additional flexibility.
A partnership among cities and towns who share the same resource allows for the kind of system-wide thinking that has been lacking. Because this partnership will rely on the same team to explore restoration of hydropower at multiple dams along the same river, the team will be better positioned to understand cumulative impacts to that shared resource. This understanding will allow the partnership to make system-wide decisions about times of operation, technologies, protection of water quality and installation of fish passage — decisions usually made on a dam-by-dam basis.
This project creates and funds a structure to provide for long-term and routine dam maintenance at dams where maintenance historically has been neglected.
This project is a direct response to the inequitable and disparate opportunities for renewable energy development at a municipal level in Rhode Island and establishes an ongoing impetus for the reform of state policies. As the state’s renewable energy laws were originally designed, only wind and solar projects could benefit from net metering. This left many of the urban, land-locked communities out of the renewable-energy conversation.
The Conservation Law Foundation also is working to respond to the threat of climate change, and believes that some amount of hydropower is part of that response.
Why we need hydropower
With little political will — or at least agreement — to aggressively control carbon dioxide emissions at a national level, there are few avenues available to lowering atmospheric CO2 to a level where the planet may actually be able to recover. Whether the tipping point for atmospheric carbon dioxide is 350 parts per million (ppm), or 450 parts, there is consensus in most scientific and environmental circles that we have either already gone past the point of no return or we are fast approaching.
The obvious problem with shutting down existing coal-fired power plants is that we still need electricity and we still need diversification of energy resources to address supply reliability and energy independence.
And, if we don’t want nuclear power; we don’t want LNG facilities; we don’t want transmission lines extending from Canada through the White Mountains or pipelines from Canada to Texas; we don’t want offshore oil drilling, then we need to start embracing efficiency and renewable energy resources of all kinds.
It isn’t enough to throw all of our renewable energy eggs into the offshore-wind basket. Hydropower is a part of New England’s current energy portfolio and needs to be a part of our future energy portfolio. The reality is that the “not in my backyard” cries resonate with all forms of renewable energy, but we still need renewable energy.
The how we embrace renewable energy; the kinds of renewable energy we support; where we locate it; what cost we pay for it; and who should benefit from the revenue it creates, are equally controversial questions.
Whether we are talking about the noise and flicker issues for land-based wind or the aesthetic concerns for offshore wind, or how much solar and wind energy costs compare to oil, or the impacts of hydropower on the rivers where we have been working to restore fish passage, there are siting challenges, wildlife and resource impacts and differences of opinion about the value of any particular project.
In attempting to find the answers to these difficult questions, we’ve seen disagreement in the environmental community, observed new alliances between the strangest of bedfellows and overheard conversations between traditional allies simply break down.
As an environmental community, we don’t disagree with the destination — a clean, sustainable, independent energy future. But, opinions abound as to the best way to get to that destination and to how quickly we must arrive.
For the most part, the person concerned about a specific offshore wind project because of the potential impact the development may have on certain avian or whale species isn’t less of an environmentalist than the person who supports all offshore wind regardless of local impacts because we need X amount by 2020 to avoid a climate catastrophe. The problem is that in any given setting, one environmentalist can be admirably focused on the whole system and the other can be focused, just as admirably, on the various parts, or a particular part, of that same system.
But if we are going to find creative and expedient ways of dealing with the multiple environmental challenges that we face today, including climate change, then we have to begin to explore a variety of strategic options aimed at addressing more than one problem at a time. We have to be able to bridge our micro- and macro-advocacy views of the world in the renewable energy context to create the opportunity for system-wide, sustainable policy decisions.
Selectively restoring hydropower on Rhode Island rivers that can efficiently and sustainably support it, presents the ideal opportunity for fostering a sustainable relationship between the many parts of a complex economic, environmental and social system. The Blackstone River still holds the energy to inspire and transform the communities that have been such a vital part of its history. This inspiration is needed if we are to restore the connection between an important historical and natural resource and the economies of the communities that once thrived alongside it.
Tricia K. Jedele is vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation Rhode Island. This article originally was published in the Fall 2011 Narragansett Bay Journal.