Perspectives Online

Harnessing  Water Power - Extension alternative energy demonstrations may prove to be ‘life-changing’ for many.   By Art Latham

A Graham County trout stream (top) is a natural power source.
Photo by Art Latham

Up in the North Carolina mountains, alternative energy innovations are sweeping the hills like sunshine after a summer thunderstorm. And North Carolina Cooperative Extension is behind agriculture-related alternative energy demonstration projects in Watauga and Graham counties that could help struggling farmers seeking shelter from today’s economic storms.

In Watauga County, Brent Summerville of ASU checks a fitting on a micro-hydroelectric system turbine.
Photo Courtesy Sue Counts
“High energy costs, such as for electricity and gasoline, adversely affect small mountain farms,” says Sue Counts, Cooperative Extension director for Watauga County. “Farmers already are burdened by higher-than-average land prices, a short growing season and inhospitable terrain. High energy costs keep them from diversifying — a major component to success — since their staple crop, tobacco, has been phased out.

“Without the solvency created through diversification, many small regional farms will continue to be lost, along with the heritage of agriculturally based mountain communities,” she says.

To help farmers develop alternate forms of income, Counts and Randy Collins, Cooperative Extension agriculture agent for Graham County, are involved in projects that result in small-scale energy production using a sustainable natural mountain resource: water.

Notes Counts, “Here, where streams and rivers are plentiful, harnessing water power through a small farm micro-hydroelectric system can provide limited-resource farmers with a renewable energy source to allow much-needed agricultural diversity.”

This generator house blends with its Watauga County surroundings.
Photo courtesy Sue Counts
In 2006, Counts and Diane Price, who with her family owns and operates the no-kill, pesticide-free Farm at Mollie’s Branch, initiated such a system. The 16-acre farm is tucked into the mountain folds near Todd, north of Boone.

The single-turbine system, like all micro-hydroelectric projects, is small-scale, with a minimum environmental impact. It is site-specific, needing only falling water to produce electricity. Since power output is a function of water flow and vertical drop, a system using 100 gallons of water per minute which drops 100 feet in elevation can produce about 1 kilowatt, nearly enough energy to run an average home.

It works like this: Water plunges through 1,200 feet of black polyethylene penstock — enclosed pipe that delivers water to hydraulic turbines, supported along the bank with steel stakes and aircraft cable — and is diverted from the stream into a silt trap intake filter built from a 55-gallon plastic drum, then to a second trap, then to the turbine. The turbine is housed in a small cabin on Mollie’s Branch. Water returns to the branch through a pipe in the cabin’s wooden floor. The moving water turns a Harris turbine and a generator converts that motion into direct current, which is sent back uphill and stored in the farmhouse garage in eight Trojan L16 6-volt batteries. The electricity is then changed to alternating current by an inverter near the batteries.

“The system has been in place for a year and a half,” says Price. “It wouldn’t be here without Sue Counts, who brought everybody together.”

Says Counts, “It is exciting to think that the Farm at Mollie’s Branch has demonstrated increased free-range chicken production, improved mushroom production and diversified crop production by replacing costly local electric cooperative services with a replicable micro-hydroelectric system.”

The system was built thanks in part to a $15,000 innovative projects grant to Watauga Extension from North Carolina A&T State University’s Cooperative Extension Program. It produces a continuous 850 watts of power, and it provides the farm about 612 kilowatt hours of energy per month to a barn, the turbine-housing cabin, chicken shed and a dehydrator for any forest-grown shitake mushroom crop surplus. At the house, it powers a freezer, an extra crop-cooling refrigerator, furnace fan, computer and some lights.

Sue Counts (left) assisted Diane Price in coordinating a micro-hydroelectric system project at Price’s Farm at Mollie’s Branch.
Photo courtesy Sue Counts
Price’s system is part of what is called “The Micro-Hydroelectric Power Demonstration Project: A Sustainable, Renewable Resource for Agricultural Diversity in the Western North Carolina Mountains.” Another cooperator is the Appalachian Regional Initiative for Sustainable Energy, an Extension-backed sustainable energy education program. Also involved are Brent Summerville, of Appalachian State University’s Technology Department, who teaches alternative energy systems classes and is project manager of the Western North Carolina Renewable Energy Initiative. Don Harris, California-based micro-hydro expert and Harris Hydro Electric Systems owner, built the four-nozzle Mollie’s Branch turbine and later checked to make sure it was correctly installed.

ASU’s Sustainable Energy Society also partnered, providing technical assistance and volunteer labor. Also collaborating were Dr. Abolghasem Shahbazi, agricultural engineer; Dr. John Martin, School of Technology; and Mary Mafuyai-Ekanem, Cooperative Extension Program, all of N.C. A&T.

“Brent Summerville was key in the planning and installation,” Price says. “He put his heart and soul into this. When we started, the weather was nice, but when it came time to put the pipe in the ground, he was out there in the blowing snow with a shovel in his hand.”

Summerville’s students and others donated about 600 hours or $10,000 worth of labor to complete the project. Among other efforts, they cleared a path for and moved and fused the 50-foot lengths of cold-weather-resistant pipe, conducted a site assessment, cleared out Mollie’s Branch, measured the electric wire run and stream flow rate, sited a silt trap and helped move the turbine-housing cabin into place.

“This project has provided countless hours of service-learning opportunities for appropriate technology students at Appalachian State and continues to serve as a successful demonstration of micro-hydro technology, producing clean, indigenous power at a working farm,” says Summerville.

Counts also is emphatic about the project’s demonstration value.

“Hundreds have toured the site, including school kids and 4-H youth. And the volunteer students have graduated and taken their experience and knowledge around the world to do similar jobs,” she says.

One of those who viewed the demonstration and came away with an idea was Randy Collins, Cooperative Extension agriculture agent in rugged Graham County, which boasts a rich agricultural heritage, once including burley tobacco production. But the county now has only one tobacco producer.

Says Collins, “Being in a low-income county where the poverty level is high, many producers are frantically searching for other alternatives to help provide the economic stability that burley once did.”

On top, in Graham County, (from left) Mike Kelly, Randy Collins and Michael Wiggins assisted a farmer in using runoff from his trout farm (bottom) to generate electricity.
Photos by Art Latham
That transition is not always easy, due not only to the poverty level, but to the higher cost of living and the current poor economy, he says.

Last summer, after viewing the Mollie’s Branch project, Collins and Michael Wiggins of Graham County’s Soil and Water Conservation District talked with long-time farmer Everett Williams, whose tobacco barn up a steep slope in Cochrans’ Creek Canyon northwest of Robbinsville is now vine-covered and falling into disrepair. But Williams has carried on other agricultural pursuits, including a trout farm, on his 80 acres.

Williams was amenable to Collins’ plan to use his trout farm water runoff to generate enough electricity to run his home and farm, so Collins and his team assessed the site and decided the project was feasible.

After consulting with ASU’s Summerville, Collins obtained a $40,000 grant from the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission to cover major costs, including materials and hiring Sundance Power Systems of Weaversville to install the turbines. Collins and his team — including Mike Kelly, a contractor who is Williams’ neighbor and serves on Collins’ Extension county advisory committee — committed to doing as much labor as possible themselves to save money. The team poured the turbine-housing shed’s foundation and framed out and roofed the shed in June.

“We’re going to hook up 1,100 feet of eight-inch pipe — which turns out to be the single most expensive item — to spill water from the existing trout farm, from where the trout raceways were emptying back into Cochrans’ Creek high up the mountain,” Collins says.

The setup, similar in concept but different in details from the Mollie’s Branch project, includes four turbines instead of one. Collins went with a system using direct current with an inverter, instead of storing energy in batteries. A new meter next to an existing meter will run backwards, subtracting the amount of electricity produced from that used, and Williams will sell excess electricity to Duke Power.

“It’s going to produce more than enough electricity to run a house and pump oxygen to the trout raceways,” Collins says. “I’d like to think that he’ll end up with no power bill.”

And, of course, the project will serve as another Extension alternative energy demonstration site, accessible throughout southwestern North Carolina.

“This should help other producers, private citizens and school groups learn how alternative energy systems work and could be used,” Collins says, “and it can help producers decide whether a system of this type might work for their particular situation.

“The project could have a major impact on many in both Graham and surrounding counties through saved energy and reduced energy costs,” he says. “And there’s no doubt about it: This is going to be life-changing for Mr. Williams.”

As more North Carolinians learn about alternative energy sources from the Watauga and Graham county demonstration projects, the projects also could be life-changing for many others served by Cooperative Extension.