Small-Scale Hydro Power Shows Promise for Some Farm Settings

6/22/2013 7:00 AM
By Linda Williams Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

BEDFORD, Pa. — Hydroelectric power is pretty much an untapped source of energy in rural Pennsylvania with only a few farms in the state using it in some capacity.

That could change as more people become aware of the low-cost possibilities of small-scale hydroelectric generators.

One business examining those possibilities is Whispering Creek Retreat near Bedford, which was the site of a workshop titled “Renewable Energy on the Farm: Micro-Hydro as a Reliable, Low-Cost Energy Solution,” which was held June 6 by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture in partnership with St. Francis University’s Renewable Energy Center.

Whispering Creek, a retreat center for churches and other organizations looking for a back-to-nature setting, was chosen because it was established to be a living “classroom.”

With a woodsy setting, the modernized Whispering Creek cabin dates to the 1700s.

“We educate others on the components of a successful energy model,” said owner Lynn Hocker.

“Along the way,” he said, “I learned that just having a zero - net - energy facility is a lofty goal and is only part of what I needed to achieve a sustainable site.”

During the summer months, Whispering Creek has solar panels that produce about five or six times the electricity needed to keep the retreat center in power.

During the winter months, there is not enough solar power, but that was to be compensated for through a vertical-axis wind turbine.

“However,” Hocker said, “The wind turbine has failed on many fronts. The manufacturer, who filed for bankruptcy a year ago, was unable to produce a reliable product or a product that performed even close to design and sales projections.

“The end result has been that the turbine used more grid electricity to stay powered up than it produces in a year,” he said.

Whispering Creek was left with a seasonally unbalanced energy system.

Hocker noted that the small stream flowing through his property flows nicely during nine months of the year and provides the center with a picturesque pond.

A micro-hydroelectric generator would peak in performance in the winter months when the solar panels are producing at their lowest level. That could provide a constant 24/7 flow of renewable electricity more than meeting the needs at the most affordable cost of all the systems in operation at Whispering Creek.

Hydroelectric power is created from the movement of water, which is constantly moving around the earth as part of as the water cycle.

At a dam, water is pulled downward by gravity and past a turbine, which is spun in the process. From this, electricity can be produced.

As those attending the workshop learned, there are two primary keys when looking into hydroelectric production, and that is drop and flow amounts.

At Whispering Creek, there are about 35 feet of stream drop over about 250 feet. This should bring about micro-hydro success and at the same time satisfy environmental concerns and permitting.

This being a future possibility, Whispering Creek seemed a good location for the workshop.

The speaker for the day was Robert Honders of Honderosa Valley Consulting, who is a retired electronics engineer and builder of micro-hydro installations.

The worship included demonstrations and slide shows on how to determine potential sites, evaluate sites, choose equipment and store extra electricity.

The 20 or so people attending walked to the Whispering Creek pond where they studied the lay of the land and the availability of the proper flow and drop there.

For more information on hydroelectric energy, visit

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