Power Through History: How a Local Hydroelectric Plant Brings Energy to the People
Following a long history in the Hudson Valley, a historic Dutchess County property channels the power of water at Wappingers Falls Hydroelectric.
Photos by Dave Coppola at Dave Coppola Photography
Water. It’s the stuff that flows through our rivers, cleans our planet, and fuels us all. Often, it’s an underappreciated resource, or something that’s just there in the tap, waiting for us to turn on the faucet. Quite literally, it’s a drop in the bucket with the potential to change the world.
At Wappingers Falls Hydroelectric, water is the tool that powers it all. Since 1988, the hydroelectric site has operated under husband-and-wife team Harry Terbush and Sarah Bower-Terbush. Terbush, who also owns and operates another hydroelectric site in Wallkill, has been with the Wappingers site from day one. Over the course of the past 30 years, he and Bower-Terbush were able to purchase the property and the building in Dutchess County, which operated exclusively under contract with Central Hudson until very recently. Along the way, they picked up more than a few fascinating tidbits about the site’s longstanding history in the Hudson Valley.
History at Work
“The site really is not only a great source of renewable energy, but a historic monument to what helped build this area,” explains Bower-Terbush. Indeed, although she and her husband took over the site in 1988, the property itself dates back to the early 1800s, when it played a role in the local industrial revolution in the Hudson Valley.
“The building dates back to 1830 when it was part of the industrial park known commonly as ‘The Bleachery,’” says Bower-Terbush. “We believe it was originally a warehouse.” Called the Dutchess Bleachery or the Garner Bleachery, the edifice functioned as a bleachery and dye plant until it closed in 1954. Prior to that, in 1909, the addition of the penstock, the massive pipe that controls water flow, paired with the consolidation of water rights for the Wappinger Creek turned the space into the region’s primary source of electric power.
“The site became the electric company for 50 square miles,” Bower-Terbush notes, adding that such a move was game-changing for residents in the area. “Bear in mind that most houses only had a couple of light bulbs if they were lucky!”
After the Bleachery closed, many of the properties in the complex remained vacant until the early 1980s, when the energy crisis of 1979 combined with the enactment of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), a law that guaranteed a minimum payment to independent power producers, allowed the property to be rebuilt. In 1988, the Terbushes took over and have been running it ever since.
Old equipment at the plant
While much of operations have remained consistent since the 1980s, 2019 signals a new chapter for the hydroelectric plant’s status in the Hudson Valley. No longer an exclusive supplier to Central Hudson, the site will now operate as an energy source for the Hudson Valley public as well.
“The laws recently changed and, through a program called Community Distributed Generation, consumers can benefit by getting credit on their Central Hudson bill for a percentage of our production,” enthuses Bower-Terbush. “The average household will not only be supporting green energy but also saving up to hundreds a year.”
How It Works
Following a launch party at Cousin’s Ale Works in Wappingers on January 16, Wappingers Falls Hydroelectric opened sign-ups for Community Distributed Generation. A year before, the Terbushes launched the program at their Wallkill site with immediate success.
“[The Wallkill site] almost immediately sold out, but it is one-tenth the size of Wappingers,” says Bower-Terbush. Currently, the Wappingers location can accommodate about 600 customers. “We are encouraging the local community to sign up first, but anyone in Central Hudson’s territory is eligible.”
Through the program, locals will receive a credit on their Central Hudson bill for a portion of the hydroelectric plant’s production. The following month, Wappingers Falls Hydroelectric bills for the credit less 10 percent.
“I want to stress that the credit from Central Hudson will cover more than the energy supply but not the entire bill,” Bower-Terbush notes.
Tour Through Time
Whether or not Wappingers Falls Hydroelectric’s energy program is of interest, the history of the property at large holds an undeniable appeal for Hudson Valley residents at large. Recognizing this, the Terbushes plan to host tours for the community that take them behind the scenes at the storied institution.
Visitors can check out everything from the 1919 turbine to the 1930s turbine that came from a gold mine in Yukon. There is also an abundance of knickknacks and even a slate control panel from the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
Of course, one of the best parts of the tour is not (just) the history, but the view that comes with it.
“As always, the best thing is the view from our back deck of the falls themselves,” Bower-Terbush enthuses. Stay tuned to the plant’s Facebook page in spring, when group tours return.