Cheap Hydro Power From Even Sluggish Streams

A former Soviet engineer who helped design Egypt's Aswan High Dam may have an answer to New England's energy problems. Northeastern University Professor Alexander M. Gorlov envisions harnessing many slow-moving rivers, estuaries, and irrigation canals in the region. Gorlov says his air-powered minihydro plant could produce electricity at less than $1,000 per kilowatt-hour. Traditional hydropower requires a vertical drop of about 100 feet and uses a gear box to get turbine blades moving fast enough. But Gorlov says streams that drop only 1 1/2 feet can rotate turbines at 4,000 rpm without added power.

Gorlov's dam features adjoining chambers with louvered doors that open and close like gills. Rising and falling water levels in the chambers act like a piston, blasting air to turn turbine blades. Since the turbine and generator are located on land, fast-moving turbine blades won't kill microorganisms and fish. Central Maine Power Co. plans to build one in Lewiston next year.