Michael Kerr – Founder & CEO, New England Hydropower Company
Q: How long have you been working at New England Hydropower Company?
Michael: I founded New England Hydropower Company back in 2012 and we’ve been working with NSIV for almost all that time. We are a developer of small-scale hydropower plants, primarily in the Northeast and now the Mid-Atlantic region. We define small-scale hydropower as existing low-head dams, generally under 30 feet, that sit on good watersheds fed by good rivers. We develop the hydropower plants and sell the electricity to the state, a municipality, a local college, or somebody else who’s got a green mandate.
Q: What is the origin story of New England Hydropower?
My younger brother in England has a mill on an old dam. He had to rebuild the dam about 12 years ago and in the process wondered “how can I get some energy out of this?” He found that, in Holland, the Dutch had developed the Archimedes screw for use as a hydropower production unit. He put one in that was ten kilowatts. I saw it and said “wow, very cool, well done.” Then, when I was looking to do something in renewables, I thought “I wonder if anybody ever looked at this technology here in the US?”, and nobody had.
Long story short, we have become the leading experts in small hydro developments, certainly in New England, and one of the very few companies in the country who are developing small hydro on existing dams.
Q: What did you do before starting New England Hydropower?
I’ve been a finance guy all my life. I’ve been in CFO and president type roles for other companies. My background is Shell, United Technologies, Wang, Benji Tronics and then various ventures, always on the financial operational side.
Q: Did you ever see yourself in an engineering-type role such as the one you are in now?
After my last venture decided I wanted to do something in renewables. I think as a finance guy with tech experience you get good at listening to and working with engineers. One of the benefits of finance people with operational experience is you can put the model together, bring in the engineers, listen to the engineers, and learn quickly and get things moving quickly.
Q: How much energy does a small-scale hydropower plant produce?
A typical site that we develop will be in between half a megawatt and a megawatt. Because hydropower is highly efficient, it operates at about four times the efficiency of onshore wind and even up to five times the efficiency of solar here in the northeast. That half MW hydro plant will probably provide enough power annually for up to 400 homes.
For example, in Rhode Island, we’re developing two sites on the Blackstone River and the combination of the energy produced from those two sites will reduce Rhode Island’s carbon footprint by half of one percent. To put it in context, if you wanted to produce that much power using solar, you’d probably need three or four acres of land. Or a reasonably-sized turbine in someone’s backyard.
The interest in in small hydro is firstly its existing infrastructure and its historic restoration. It’s definitely community local energy because these aren’t in remote areas. And you get to satisfy the energy mandates that city mayors or states have.
Q: What are some challenges that you face in this field?
Interconnection is a fundamental pain for any renewable energy project. I was looking at an article yesterday that goes through all the system operators such as ISO New England and PJM, who covers much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. PJM has stopped taking new interconnection applications because their backlog is so big, with over two-thousand applications there. By contrast, ISO New England has got 350. You get extremes to where the system operators can’t handle it.
Q: Do you ever face anti-dam groups?
We deliberately don’t go and work on any of those dams. Our field work will determine whether there is an anti-dam lobby and if there is, we don’t want to waste our time. For a small company it is important to be able to say no quickly. We want to create systems that can be in place for 60 or 70 years so if there is talk of the dam coming down, that is a waste of our time.
Q: What is something that you enjoy doing outside of work?
I grow dahlias. This year must have had about 20 different types. I try to keep track but there’s so many it’s like ‘oh my goodness, why did I start this?’
Q: Why did you start?
Because I like gardening and I like flowers. I must have 6 gardens that get stuff from me every year now.
Q: Do you prefer the beach or the mountains?
Mountains, I don’t really enjoy sitting on the beach. I prefer hiking or skiing and the exhilaration of being up there and seeing everything in front of you.
Q: What is your favorite movie?
The Sting. I just think it’s great acting. It has a good storyline and it’s got great actors. I could go on and on with my movies, but that one comes to mind. I also like war movies like Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan.