WNPR

Young Entrepreneurs See Opportunity Flowing Through Decaying Dams

Sep 12, 2017

New England is home to thousands of dams that have fallen out of use -- a legacy of our industrial past. 

The dams can be a liability for owners and municipalities, who have to maintain them or pay for their removal, which in turn can upset people who’ve come to rely on their impoundments for recreation. But a couple of 20-something entrepreneurs see potential in old dams in the form of renewable energy and profit.

The Goose River runs roughly nine miles from Maine's Swan Lake to meet the sea in the state's mid-coast.

Along the way, it passes through several dams and impoundments built more than a century ago to power a leather board mill, including this dam, now owned by a company called Goose River Hydro.

“This is the original turbine — this turbine drove a big flywheel and belt pulley system that supplied mechanical power to the mill that was here,” said company co-founder Nick Cabral, a trim, 25-year-old marine engineer.

He and business partner Nick Bernier have been working six years to rehabilitate the river's moldering dams, and bring them into service as hydro-electric plants. This summer, Cabral was the sole occupant of a ramshackle mill building they've converted into living quarters.

His partner was at sea, working the engine room of a tramp ship. Despite their youth, the partners believe their training, willingness to put in sweat equity, -- and a $200,000 private loan -- could give them a chance in the energy industry. 

"We had just enough knowledge about electricity to be dangerous," Cabral said. "So we put all that stuff together and thought if we can fix a ship that's bobbing around in the ocean, we could probably fix a stationary piece of machinery." 

Mason's Dam is a few miles upstream from the mill where Cabral lives. It's a small dam, maybe 15 feet tall, sloping down from a clear holding pool to the rock-strewn stream below.

"We had just enough knowledge about electricity to be dangerous."
- Nick Cabral, Goose River Hydro

"It's a good example of a lot of the dams throughout Maine. Stone masonry. This facility was used to manufacture ax handles," Cabral said. 

Now the dam manufactures electricity. At its base is a big, culvert-style, rust-colored tube called a penstock that carries water from the dam down to the turbine system.

Painted blue, as big as refrigerators, and shaped like torpedoes, the turbines shake and rattle like a hardworking combustion engine. Although, of course, no fossil fuels are involved.

“It’s the power of the river,” Cabral said. “Right now it’s producing between 35 and 48 kilowatts, and so that fluctuates based upon the water level of the head pond above.”

Goose River Hydro co-founder Nick Cabral shows off two turbine units inside the powerhouse at Mason's Dam.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

Cabral thinks of rain as “pennies from heaven.” The more water in the run-of-the-river system, the more energy to be captured, and, under a 20-year contract approved by state regulators, sold to Central Maine Power at 10 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s above current spot-market rates, and you can add on another 20-40 percent for credits state policy provides to incentivize renewable energy generation.

Still, even going full-bore, these turbines alone would earn roughly $6 an hour, hardly enough to justify the heavy upfront acquisition, rehab, and licensing costs Goose River Hydro is incurring. Which is where, a few miles downstream, a concrete dam comes in.

More than 200 feet wide and 20 feet tall, it’s the key to quadrupling the overall project’s capacity.

“This is definitely, I think, the gem of the project,” Cabral said.

The penstock at the dam’s base is designed to deliver some 40 cubic feet of water per second to a powerhouse below, although it’s not handling the gushing supply so well right now.

“It’s corroded so much, there’s all these little pinhole leaks all over the penstock itself. You have some larger holes, which is where you see all that water coming through from constant erosion,” Cabral said.

He estimated it will take some half million dollars to rehab and retrofit this part of the system. There will be a lot of regulatory hurdles along the way, including an assessment of the projects effects on historic fish runs, but Cabral said it should be online by 2020.

With dozens of more smaller dams in Maine in need of refurbishment, he hopes the Goose River project will provide an example for other young entrepreneurs.

“With our growing old population, we’ve got to figure out a way to keep people in Maine and keep our economy moving forward. And hydropower is one of those good ways to do it and also play nice with the environment at the same time — and Maine has the resource,” he said.

Joe Sawyer (left) and Lawrence "Larry" Gleeson, co-designers of the original turbines on Mason's Dam.
Credit Courtesy the Gleeson Family

When the project’s fully operational, Cabral estimates it will produce more than $120,000 revenue annually. And this is far from his only plan for old dams in Maine – he’s also working to patent a sort of snap-on turbine system that would make it easier for municipalities and private owners to rehab the decaying, mill-era dams that dot the region, and capture enough energy to at least pay for their own upkeep.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.