Ed Clark

Ed Clark just told me the story of how he scared the fireman on the Panamanian registered S.S. El Costan in 1942, the year of my birth. Ed was in the merchant marines. El Costan was a twin-stacked steamer built in 1927. She made15 knots steady with 6 boilers and she was the perfect target. But it wasn't a "U" boat that got her; it was a North Atlantic blow and a barrier reef off of Iceland.

The ship had lost both engines and had gone broadside till the waves set her on the reef. The fireman was only firing one boiler to run the big dynamo that ran the pumps. They had repaired the big pump in the stern and the captain asked for a volunteer. There being none, he looked at seventeen year old Ed Clark. "You'll do Red. Go to the boiler room. Tell the fireman to stoke that boiler. We'll need it to run this pump."

At 17, Ed had no fear of death, but even in the retelling at 79 his voice broke with the excitement and wonder at the forces battling around him. The way to the engine room was through a shaft tunnel. Just the sound she made was awesome, and when he emerged into the ship's engine room, what he saw was surreal. As he stood there, he watched rivets pop like corks and erupt into spurting streams of water. There were places where whole seams in the steel plate were letting go. She was coming apart.

The fireman had always kept a ladderback chair where he sat when he wasn't working. He now had the chair propped up on two legs, balanced against list of the ship, in the space between two boilers. With his feet on a steam pipe and his eyes closed, he was playing his harmonica. When Ed walked up behind the fireman and put his hand on the man's shoulder, he let out a shriek and jumped from the chair and the harmonica went skyward. His name was John Parsons and Ed said he was the bravest man he ever knew.

Ed and I started out with grand illusions about running existing low head hydro to provide non-polluting power for New England. We did it for idealistic reasons but the environmental folks have done the best they could to put us out of business from the start. In 1979 and 80 we thought that Jimmy Carter's PURPA legislation would help. It didn't. It just meant that every sleazy lawyer and engineering firm who thought they could rip off the government with tax schemes and grants for phony feasibility studies got into the business. The New Yorker printed a highly romanticized article about the almost effortless success of Mark Quinalin and Ed Fallen on two abandoned sites on the Deerfield River. They managed to sell both sites for a handsome profit shortly after the article came out and shortly before the spring runoff carried the rotten timber crib dams away. The frenzy to "make money while you sleep" with tax credits to boot, drove prices unrealistically high. Mill owners who had previously thought of their dams as liabilities started to see dollar signs. Sites that would be hard pressed to pay off at twenty thousand dollars went on the market for ten times that.

PURPA required host utilities to pay alternate energy suppliers at the avoided cost of fuel. I put on line one of the first hydro sites in the country after Carter's energy legislation and got eight cents per kilowatt for my first month's production in 1980. I have never gotten eight cents per kilowatt in the twenty years since. In 1980, all 40,000 members of the Department of Energy got their heads together and couldn't determine the avoided cost of fuel. They decided to let the utilities determine the cost. With the fox now guarding the chicken coop, New England Power and some creative accountants determined the avoided cost to be that of fuel in the ground without drilling, refining, mining or shipping charges or about two and a half cents per kilowatt.

In 1985, the hydro tax credits ran out, as did most of its investors. Corporations ate their losses and anyone who did not have equipment running dropped their license applications. People like Ed Clark and myself who had invested everything we had in the rehabilitation of fine old direct-coupled generators and massive low head turbines didn't have the option of walking out. We had to stay with our investments or go completely personally bankrupt.

Some, like Gary Whipple in Montville, Connecticut did, but even bankruptcy does not relieve one of his obligation to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for dam safety. Even after FERC had bankrupted him with fines and bureaucratic requirements, Whipple had to pay to cap the dam with 100 yards of concrete just so he could give the whole site away and get out of the liability. The irony of it all was that the horseshoe shaped, tiered, granite block dam built by 19th century craftsmen was probably one of the soundest dams in the state. Before his skirmish with FERC, Gary had owned a small logging company. He had hoped to add about 12,000 dollars gross to his annual income with the rehab of his small hydroelectric site.