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New technology, economics convert old dams into hydropower plants

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"Cash cows" are what some investors are calling them, referring to their moneymaking potential. Others see them as nonpolluting, inexhaustible energy sources ripe for development.

Whatever their description, small-scale hydroelectric power plants are generating a lot of interest.

Last month's opening of the Lawrence Hydroelectric Project -- the largest hydro plant to begin operation in New England in half a century -- symbolizes what some observers are calling a gold rush for small hydropower plants. Continued high prices for oil and jumps in new turbine technology are prompting more and more entrepreneurs to throw the switch on hydropower.

"The oil situation is justifying the smaller hydro operation," one industry observer says. "Low-head dams are the most economical arrangement now."

Although the benefits of that hydro boom won't reach the consumer's pocketbook immediately, the potential for reducing foreign oil imports could be significant.

Nowhere is that news so welcome as in New England, a region heavily dependent on oil but blessed with many rivers. Already equipped with nearly 10,000 dams remaining from New England's 19th-century textile industry, the region's rivers are just waiting for hydro development.

In Massachusetts alone, more than 100 dams have been deemed feasible for restoration and development by the New England River Basins Commission. Some 1. 2 million barrels of oil could be saved annually if these sites were put into production.

Beyond the continued high cost of oil, incentives for small-scale hydro development include a three-year-old federal law now taking effect requiring public utilities to purchase electricity from private generators.


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