photograph by Aaron Hobson
How two brothers are going local with renewable energy
Emmett and Ethan Smith are on a mission to change the way you think about the electricity that powers your house—to think about it as a local good, like something you buy at the farmers’ market, something rooted in Adirondack history, and something that can save the planet.
“You’re actually making this conscientious decision about who is putting that energy into the grid on your behalf,” says Ethan. Your lights and washing machine and laptop could be powered by a multinational conglomerate or a local firm, using coal or nuclear or natural gas or solar or wind. It’s your choice.
The Smiths and their business, Northern Power & Light, want you to choose a little hydropower dam on a little Adirondack river.
When Emmett was nine and Ethan was 14, their father, Everett Smith, a classic boat builder and bluegrass musician, rehabbed a dilapidated dam in the heart of St. Regis Falls.
“We spent that summer kind of in disbelief that our family was doing this,” recalls Emmett. As his dad maneuvered cranes and repaired generators with his uncle, Matt Foley, young Emmett played around nearby, building a toy car from spent fuses and electrical parts (it still sits on his dad’s dresser). “What the heck does my father know about building a power plant?” Ethan remembers thinking, as blasts of dynamite shook the ground beneath him.
The dam on the St. Regis River hadn’t been of economic use since the 1930s, when the Brooklyn Cooperage Company used it to power a sawmill for making barrels. But Everett Smith and Foley erected a powerhouse and, in 1993, started selling electricity into the grid as Azure Mountain Power. The renewable energy boom of the 1970s was still reverberating, and wholesale prices were good. “This was my father’s retirement plan,” says Emmett.
But things slowly went south. Deregulation of New York State’s electric industry pushed prices down. Then the glut of natural gas from the hydrofracking boom did the same. Subsidies for “newer” forms of renewable energy made it possible for large-scale wind installations to profit even as prices continued to drop. At its highest point, Azure Mountain Power’s pre-deregulation contract earned them 11 cents per kilowatt hour; today, the market rate is one to two cents.
Then, in 2014, a flood partially washed out the revived hydropower dam. The Smiths rebuilt, but the writing was on the wall. A family-owned Adirondack hydropower dam producing carbon-free energy was in danger of disappearing. “We knew we had to come up with a new business model that would create enough revenue to keep the thing operating,” Emmett says. He went back to school and got a master’s degree in energy policy from the Vermont Law School. He started attending technical electrical grid meetings in Albany.
A year after the flood, New York State unveiled a new “community distributed generation” program, designed to connect small, renewable power producers with consumers who want to buy green energy. It’s a part of the state’s massive, ambitious goal to reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040, now enshrined in a 2019 law. Instead of selling bulk electricity into the highly competitive grid, small hydro, solar or wind plants can market directly to consumers and get paid a premium—in Azure’s case, more than double the wholesale price.
So in 2018, the Smiths launched Northern Power & Light (NP&L), an energy company based in Saranac Lake. The name echoes the hydropower pioneers that first electrified Adirondack towns around the turn of the 20th century, like Paul Smith’s Electric Power and Light Company. NP&L establishes that direct connection between a renewable power producer and your home.
But here’s the weirdest—and for customers, the happiest—wrinkle. People who buy the renewable power pay the exact same price as before; a portion of the electricity bill just comes from a different company. “It’s kind of a complicated loop, but it ends up that we cut out the middleman and we get a slightly better rate for the electricity,” says Emmett.
Ethan came to the company after owning a popular Mexican restaurant in New York City for more than a decade. It specialized in locally sourced ingredients. Ethan says local energy isn’t a big leap from other “buy local” movements that aim to make our lives more sustainable in the face of climate change. “Let’s source our energy locally and sustainably, and this is where we all need to move,” Ethan says, “not just in our food, but also in other aspects of our lives.”
Today, the Smiths’ St. Regis Falls dam is fully subscribed, powering 166 local residences, and NP&L is moving on to other renewable projects. It’s signing up customers for the much bigger Sissonville dam, in Potsdam, which is owned by Boralex Hydro Operations, of Glens Falls—though Emmett says that facility should be fully subscribed soon. Other projects are in the pipeline, such as dams in Black Brook and Warrensburg. NP&L supplies businesses as well as individuals, including Paul Smith’s College, the Potsdam Food Co-op and Saranac Lake’s BluSeed Studios.
Small, locally owned dams were the backbone of the Adirondack economy for centuries, powering sawmills and lumberyards, sparking settlements and villages. Today’s electric grid economics threatens their survival, but Northern Power & Light and the “community distributed generation” model offer a roadmap for sustainability. “And it feels more sustainable,” says Emmett, “because we have the backing of this community of people that are saying, ‘We want this thing.’”
Learn more about Northern Power & Light, and how to sign up, by visiting npandl.com or calling (518) 293-4075.