Big and small, Ron MacLeod has done it all in his three decades of hydro-electric experience.
Ron MacLeod’s experiences are rich with lessons on how to harness the amazing potential in falling water. From a 22-megawatt project on the Merrimac River in Massachusetts to a 500-watt residential system on an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, he’s at home with water, no matter where it is.
Growing up on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania, Ron started tinkering with mechanical things early in life. He also developed an awareness and respect for nature and natural resources: His parents farmed organically, hunted, fished, and coordinated environmental education programs in their community. It’s not surprising, then, that he found his calling in a career that married his mechanical aptitude with natural resources.
In 1976, when visiting his parents in Maine, Ron had his first hydro encounter while trout fishing on the Kennebago River near the Canadian border. Coming around a bend in the river, he spied a former hydro site—complete with dam, powerhouse, and turbines—that had been shut down in the 1960s. Most of the powerhouse was boarded up, but one of the windows was open, so Ron climbed in to look around. The potential of tapping a natural resource with an existing system and the challenge of revitalizing something that had fallen into disuse excited him.
This sparked the start of a long series of explorations into hydro sites and turbines. By his own admission, Ron says he “got obsessed” with commercial hydro projects, and started combing through dam data from state and federal agencies, poring over topography maps, canvassing the countryside, and tapping into the experts—old-time hydro operators, turbine designers, and manufacturers.
He became an expert in the history of the technology. “Energy was so much more valuable 50 years ago. People cared much more about these projects—entire fortunes were made. Hydro is an elitist source of electricity. It’s such a good power source, but also, when you control it, you don’t have to share it. Power is power; people don’t recognize the relationship between horsepower, political power, industrial power, and military power—they are all connected. For instance, in the history of Philadelphia, just about every family that became influential was in one way or another associated with a source of water power.”
Although this research was crucial to Ron’s professional hydro future—which spanned from turbine and system design to sales, installation, and operation—he says, “During this phase, I learned a lot, but didn’t achieve anything in the hydro industry. And I still didn’t know enough to know what I didn’t know.” Until he met Nathan Eberle.
In 1980, Ron was living in Chester County, Pennsylvania, just east of Lancaster County, a center of Amish and Mennonite communities. He hadn’t had much contact with these groups—also known as “plain people” because of their unadorned dress and simple living tenets. But while working on a building project, he needed a source of inexpensive lumber and found a sawmill run by Mennonites. He was impressed with their honesty, integrity, thriftiness, and determination to eschew material trappings, and focus on their families.
Ron found a font of hydro information in Nathan Eberle, a retired Mennonite millwright in his 90s. As a young man, Nathan would move to a new mill site, supervise the design of the mill, dam, mechanical infrastructure, and electrical transmission, and bring the system into operation. As the Rural Electrification Administration came through the area and the electrical demand exceeded capacity of the existing hydro systems, the communities switched to using gas- and steam-powered engines, and ultimately to a centralized, utility-powered grid. The hydro systems fell into disuse. Ever the conservationist, Nathan pulled out many turbines and stored them in a field, collecting piles of original machinery.
Meeting Nathan was a turning point for Ron, who recognized that new equipment for small hydro sites wasn’t available at that time—instead, old equipment had to be refurbished. To do this, you had to be able to identify what equipment you had, and how much power it could produce given a particular head and flow. The specifics of whatever machinery you dug up out of the mud was crucial to success with the projects. As a history buff and researcher, Ron was already acquiring as much information as he could from many manufacturers, but Nathan was a gold mine.
When Nathan died, Ron went to the auction held by the Eberle family with $273—all of his savings. Ron made fast friends with another Mennonite at the auction, and with him bought 14 water turbines, bidding against scrap dealers. At the auction, Ron met Walter, also a Mennonite, for whom he built a 2 kW hydro system.
After Walter’s system was up and running, an elder in the Mennonite community saw what Ron had done and leased a dam near Walter’s farm, developing a 20 kW system on 8 feet of head. Because it is Mennonite tradition to only use power they produce themselves, these hydro-electric projects became very popular in that community. About a dozen sites along the Conestoga River were developed over the next 15 years, most with Ron’s guidance.
In 1986, after six years of installing small-scale hydro systems, Ron’s moved into the utility-scale arena as an operations manager for a 40 MW system at Lowell & Lawrence on the Merrimac River in Massachusetts. The system at Lowell had one large installation and many smaller (500 kW to 1 MW) systems on the city canal system. Being their hydro-electric operations manager required him to be familiar with both big and small hydro systems.
This work propelled Ron into other hydro-electric projects in New England, as well as equipment brokering, since he had experience evaluating a variety of turbines. His installation and operations management experience eventually led to consulting work in Central America on private and U.S. government-sponsored humanitarian projects through the U.S. Agency for International Development. Among other organizations, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association hired him to survey the hydro sites that had been destroyed in El Salvador after the revolution and determine if they could be rehabilitated. But he was frustrated by the government bureaucracy, which made it hard to complete projects. Poor planning and not enough funding hamstrung many of the ventures, and Ron decided to take a hydro hiatus.
But like the ebb and flow of rivers, after taking a five-year sabbatical from hydro projects, Ron was drawn back to the field to launch his own business, Nautilus Water Turbines in Pennsylvania. On the day he incorporated the business, he had a massive heart attack, so the business got off to a slow start. But Ron’s determination, and the support of his wife, Laura, kept him going. He also called on former colleagues and found that many were open to turning over their turbine designs. Ron was able to add another 20 designs to his turbine collection, giving him the ability to meet a wide range of head and flow requirements. Ron says that “giving a guy a turbine design is not like giving a guy a fish; it’s like giving him a fishing rod, because they can be scaled up and down as needed.”
Ron started to build his own turbines. The runner, the wheel that receives the water, was based on a design he owned. The scroll case, the conduit directing the water from the intake or penstock to the runner, was Ron’s design based on advice he received from his extensive contacts. The product line included 10-inch unregulated, 8-inch unregulated, and 8-inch regulated Francis turbines, used in low- to medium-head situations.
Even while he was busy building Nautilus turbines, Ron kept pursuing his hydro explorations. Ron and Laura started to think about buying a productive hydro site that would provide income during their golden years. They first purchased a former paper mill in Vermont, but the bureaucratic hurdles of turning this site into a workable hydro-electric system caused them to seek another project. A few phone calls put him in touch with a colleague who had recently bought a mill site in southern New Hampshire that sold power to the grid. With 18 feet of head and a maximum potential of about 800 kW, it was a feasible scale for an individual to rebuild and operate, and do so profitably.
The site had been online for 15 years but struggled, making about half of the power and money it could have, and had frequent equipment breakdowns. Ron plans to revamp portions of the operation, bringing in new equipment.
Six weeks after he and Laura’s purchase of the mill, one 165 kW turbine was up and running: the first of four 300 rpm turbines with 1.2- to 1.7-meter-diameter propellers that Ron will be able to run. He hopes to have the second and third running later this year. Because the water flow varies, the third and fourth turbines may be smaller ones, possibly 50 kW each, to handle lower summer flows without shutting down the site entirely.
Once Ron and his crew have finished overhauling the hydro site, it will take 20 to 40 hours per week to operate and will provide Ron and Laura with a comfortable income. For the electricity they produce, they will be paid a fluctuating wholesale rate for peaking capacity. Plus, they will also earn renewable energy credits. This adds up to a decent income, and the future looks brighter still, with energy prices increasing and supply tight.
As Ron approaches his retirement years, he says he’ll be passing the torch to the next generation. “I’d like to find something to do with the turbine designs that I have, to help them be used to do some good in the world.”
While Ron sees the benefit of hydro systems, he’s not blind to their impacts. He just asks that people consider the alternatives. “Fisherman and kayakers, who are often strongly against hydro installations, seem to overlook that for every dam that is torn down or every project that is stopped, nuclear plants will be developed in their place.
“We’re going to have to begin to make judgments, instead of just reacting. It’s too late to achieve the very best. Water power has a place,” he says. “There was a time when water power was abused, and it still can be. Power and energy can be dangerous and destructive—just like a gun if it is aimed in the wrong direction. But it’s not good or bad inherently—it depends on judgment.”
Ian Woofenden dreams of a hydro-electric system as he works at his solar and wind-powered home in northwest Washington.