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Radio Catskill Benefits From Micropower

The story of hydro power in the Catskills, however, begins long before the advent of the radio station.

(click thumbnail)Lake Jefferson in the Catskill Mountains of New York has long been a popular recreation area for area residents.

It is also the source of electricity for the only hydro-powered radio station in the country, WJFF(FM), Radio Catskill.

The story of hydro power in the Catskills, however, begins long before the advent of the radio station.

Powering up

In 1922, a dam was built near Jeffersonville by the Clark Water & Power Company, with the intent of developing a regional hydro-power distribution facility. The dam was completed, but plans for water-powered turbines eventually were abandoned in favor of coal-generated power on the site.

(click thumbnail)25 and 45 KW turbines in the powerhouse generate electricity to power the studio building. Excess power is sold to a utility.In 1984, Malcom Brown, a former philosophy professor turned renewable energy activist, bought the generating plant and dam and installed 45 and 25 KW turbines to provide 70 KW of clean energy.

This is considered a micro-hydro power facility according to U.S. Department of Energy standards. More colloquially, this is known simply as micropower, part of a growing trend.

The facility went online in 1986 and sells excess power back to New York State Electric & Gas. When running at maximum capacity, the turbines can provide enough power for 20 to 25 homes.

Annoyed by the lack of independent public radio in the mountainous Catskill area, Brown next turned his attentions to starting WJFF.

He organized the community to get involved with the project, and the station was constructed almost entirely by volunteer labor, and connected to the turbines from the outset.


WJFF signed on in February of 1990 at 90.5 MHz. Brown sold the dam and powerhouse in 2005 and left the area to spearhead the HullWind community wind power project in Hull, Mass.

(click thumbnail)A ‘penstock’ at the base of the dam delivers water to the turbines in the powerhouseAccording to station manager Mike D’Antonio, he and two others are the only paid staff at WJFF. Station operations, including on-air announcing, are managed by volunteers.

“We currently have over 100 volunteers who bring a great deal of passion to their work at the station.”

Musical programming runs the spectrum from rock to classics, and most programs are produced locally by volunteers, although syndicated programs “Art of the Song” and “E-town” are aired during the overnight hours. The station also airs NPR news, plus several local news and public affairs programs.

“Many programs have an environmental emphasis,” said D’Antonio, “including one hosted by a man who operates the local wind farm.” Recently, the station aired reports about proposals to drill for natural gas in nearby Damascus, Pa., a strong concern of area residents.

Localism at WJFF includes airing school closings as well as lost cat and dog reports. “Community responsibility is one of our guiding principles,” adds D’Antonio.

The community supports WJFF in turn. During a recent seven-day fund drive the station was able to raise over $30,000. Notes D’Antonio, “People are excited to be involved with WJFF.”

Ups and downs

Since its sign-on in February of 1990, the studio building has been entirely hydro-powered and off the grid for most of the year.

The only exception is usually during the month of August, when water levels are at their lowest. Then the turbines must be turned off to avoid draining the lake too low.

While not enough water can be a problem, so can too much. During times of flooding there is a danger that the powerhouse may be submerged, and the turbines must be shut down. Such was the case during a flood in June of 2006, when the powerhouse was under six feet of water. There was no permanent damage, and power generation resumed once everything was dried out.

Floods can also damage the dam itself. D’Antonio adds that the high waters of 2006 spilled over the top of the dam’s corewall, eroding the earth embankment on the opposite side and threatened the powerhouse.

The force of the water also caused damage to the concrete facing of the spillway. The earth bank was refilled, and the dam judged to be safe for the short-term by federal inspectors. Repairs to the spillway are pending.

WJFF occupies a unique niche in the realm of green broadcasters. Its on-air slogan is “the only hydro-powered station in the nation.” One of the few other water-powered facilities in the Americas is HCJB, Quito Ecuador, which has dammed headwaters of the Amazon to power its shortwave and medium-wave transmitter site.

While its studios are off-grid most of the year, the WJFF transmitter building remains on the grid — for now.

“We’re looking into wind power for that site, but the project is still in the early stages.”

Articles in the Green Radio series are archived at Tom Vernon wrote about Clear Channel’s KKGN(AM) in February.

The Micropower Revolution

Say “power generation” and most people envision large nuclear or coal-driven plants owned by huge utility companies.

That vision may be changing. The new philosophy of power generation is leaning away from the monopoly of large utilities towards the open, competitive marketplace with smaller plants generating power locally: micropower. This can take the form of wind, solar, microturbines or hydro.

Several forces are combining to drive the adoption of micropower. These systems are gaining favor in the green community because they have a much smaller carbon footprint than fossil-fuel based installations.

Micropower can be adjusted to match demands, and installed more quickly than central systems. It is usually more reliable than the grid, being immune from blackouts on an aging infrastructure, either from accident or sabotage.

IT-intensive companies demand reliable, clean power and are discovering that micropower is easier to generate locally than to filter out spikes and noise from the power grid. At the same time, technology advances are making solar and wind power more affordable, and improving reliability.

Some experts predict a tipping point as soon as costs are competitive with fossil fuel-delivered electricity — without subsidies.

Micropower really is the second coming for locally generated power. When electrical power distribution was in its infancy in the 19th century, founders such as Thomas Edison envisioned a highly decentralized system, with individual businesses generating their own electricity. Early systems such as the dam and powerhouse at Jeffersonville bore out this idea. Eventually, however, the concept of centralized power generation run by large utilities won out.

Some analysts view micropower as a disruptive technology, meaning they feel its potential is greatly underestimated at the outset but it will quickly reach critical mass, toppling unprepared companies and taking many observers by surprise.

— Tom Vernon