Retired schoolteacher reactivates an antique power plant

In a small but significant way, Mary Heather has contributed to lower gasoline prices at the pump and stabilized fuel-oil costs in the home. Largely through her own efforts, the retired schoolteacher from this western Massachusetts town saved the nation 1,500 barrels of oil last year and expects to save around 2,400 barrels this year and every year from now on - a tidy accomplishment for one person.

Mrs. Heather did this by tapping some energy from the Housatonic River where it flows through the town. To be exact, she reactivated a turn-of-the-century hydro-electric plant that once powered the looms at the Monument cotton mills a little farther downstream. She did this by protesting and ultimately thwarting the planned demolition of the dam, built in 1906.

Later she had the turbine hauled up from the mud of the Housatonic, where it had been dumped more than 30 years before. The rust was removed, and it was put back into service. The turbine responded by turning out a million kilowatt hours of electricity in the first year following its recommission. According to New England Electric (NEC), which buys the power from Mrs. Heather, that first year's production saved NEC from burning 1,500 barrels of oil in a conventional power plant.

A second turbine, salvaged from another defunct plant in the region, will shortly come on stream, boosting the little power plant's output by two-thirds.

Back in 1975 - after the first oil crunch, but before the second one came along to confirm that the profligate use of energy was a thing of the past - the town selectmen of Stockbridge voted to demolish the old dam.

Joseph Guerrieri, an electrical engineer from California and Mrs. Heather's brother, heard of the decision and wrote to his sister, telling her to get it stopped. How could she stop it, she wondered. Mrs. Heather went to town meeting at her brother's request and - perhaps because she had taught English, Latin, and French at school - was able to speak eloquently enough to have the demolition halted. Only eight people voted for the dam to be destroyed; everyone else in the town wanted it to stay intact.

Two years later, in 1977, Mrs. Heather and her brother bought the hydro plant , which included the dam and granite building that houses the turbines, and began restoring it. Federal and state inspections followed, and a host of regulations that we generally lump under the heading of red tape kept restoration to a snail's pace.

Not until the final few days of 1982 did the plant begin turning out electricity. In the meantime, the original $5,000 investment had ballooned to close to a quarter million dollars, all from Mrs. Heather's and her brother's pockets. Government funding is available, but that would only mean still more paper work and more restrictions on what they could do.

''My brother had had enough of that,'' says Mrs. Heather, ''and insisted we go it alone.''

The plant has now been restored, using machinery and equipment dating back to the turn of the century. Mrs. Heather insists that the plant be as much a working museum as it is a producer of power. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Recently she received a call from a radio station in Canada, requesting an interview. ''Why would Canadians, with such huge hydroelectric plants, be interested in hearing about a little operation like mine?'' Mrs. Heather wanted to know.

''Because,'' responded the interviewer, ''there are thousands of similar little rivers and dams in Canada that could be made to produce power.''

Mrs. Heather likes that. Even the mighty Niagara starts out as individual little raindrops, she says, and if her example can spark others to do the same, then the cumulative total could be significant.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers estimates there are some 5,600 unused dams suitable for generating electricity in the US. Their combined capacity would equal that of three new nuclear power plants.

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