It’s Hydroelectric! How Water Powers Elmhurst

It’s funny, really. Elmhurst is a company that prides itself on not selling glorified water; but when it comes to powering our production, water is all we use. We’re lucky in a sense. It’s just 30 miles from our offices to Niagara Falls, possibly the world’s most famous waterfall.

You may be surprised, but those busloads of tourists – adorned with their high-zoom cameras – aren’t seeing the full power of Niagara Falls. Not even close. At a given moment, between 60 and 75% of water (1,200,000 gallons per second) is diverted to produce 4.9 million kilowatts of American and Canadian electricity, enough to power 3.8 million homes. 1

And, of course, Elmhurst. 100% of our energy comes from water. Equally importantly, 0% comes from dams.

The Gallon’s Journey: Lake to Falls

To appreciate the gift of Niagara Falls hydroelectricity, let’s take a journey. Imagine a single gallon of water, moving through the Great Lakes supersystem on its way to the sea.

We pick up where the shores of Lake Erie taper to a point. Our brave gallon passes the cracked, arcane grain silos; the elevated concrete highway that dooms Buffalo’s panorama – so much that it has become part of its strange beauty. Soon you notice, like waking-up, that the waning lake has become a river. You flow slowly under the unsightly green international bridge which joins Buffalo’s low architectural skyline with Canada. Soon the lovely buildings recede behind lesser ones. There is little beauty in this next phase of the journey; more of a cold functionality built in brick and weathered with time but dignified by age.

Gradually, the scene softens, particularly on the left bank. The sleepy, occasionally nondescript, miles fade until the hulking grass hill of an old landfill appears to the right. The river splits. You likely continue under two sets of twin bridges bookending another seven-mile thread of rocky commerce and industry. If you’re luckier, you divert left and flow peaceably, flanked by two green shores and scattered beaches. But your security will be false.

The confluence of the two parted streams of the Niagara River, encapsulating Grand Island, gathers the dormant intensity of both. The river here is wide. It grows in force until its momentum is uncontained, barely remembering the sleepy currents of Erie. Now the fingers of the tumbling rapids grow white. A thousand voices thunder ahead. The rising mist reveals the shades of towers, a virtual Vegas full of hotels, casinos, and views. They must be there for a reason. Something is about to happen.

The Gallon’s Journey: Falls to Sea

Welcome to Niagara Falls. You’ll go one of two ways.

Over the Falls

In fact, there are two falls, separated by the ominously perched Goat Island. To the left, Canada’s well-named Horseshoe Falls has hosted innumerable stunts and gimmicks. Barrel drops. An entire schooner over the cliff. A nationally televised high-wire walk. David Copperfield’s triumphant helicopter ascent from certain death in 1990. Our water will fall 170 feet (higher than Paris’ Arc de Triomphe), landing at the feet of the Maid of the Mist and the raincoated passengers squinting all along its decks.

Perhaps instead you’ll flow right and dare the American Falls, which is somewhat less comfortable, being eroded to a massive tower of rock at its feet. You’ll resurface under the streel half-arch of the observation tower, like a bridge the architects forgot to finish.

There is mysterious serenity at the bottom as you approach the Rainbow Bridge, named for the prism effects of the sun through the climbing mist. Most likely, though, your route to the sea, to which all water aspires, will be neither of these cataracts.

To the Hydro Plant

Let’s assume our gallon escapes the fury of the Falls and becomes American hydro water. It will run through secret conduits beneath the City of Niagara Falls, NY. (The drop of the mighty waterfall has created a gorge, so this is happening at an elevation, which is critical.) After about 4.5 miles, near the limestone cliffs of Lewiston, our gallon attains one of two large reservoirs. Of course, there is little need for irrigation from manmade pools alongside a freshwater river connecting two freshwater lakes. The primary purpose of these great ponds is to collect and manage the perpetual inflow from the brink of the Falls.

From the reservoir, our gallon finally drops. At the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant or Lewiston Pump Generating Plant, it plunges with thousands of its companions onto one of 25 turbines, which it helps turn. And that’s it. Our work done, we discharge into a passive Niagara, breathing the wine and fruit country air. Then, eight miles later, we reach the twin havens of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Niagara. The shadows of a distant Toronto skyline beckon the traveler to Lake Ontario. It’s on to the St. Lawrence and its Thousand Islands. Then Montreal, the shrine of hockey. And Quebec remembering the Old World at the estuary which meets the Atlantic.

May a sturdy rain bring us back again one day.

The Benefits of Niagara Falls Hydro Power

It’s 36 miles from scrappy but solid Buffalo to the lovely Ontario outflow. Here’s why (though certainly not for the unsuspecting human passenger), it’s the best water journey in the world.

Lots of Power

It isn’t everywhere you can grab so much water – gathered from the accumulation of the larger Midwestern Great Lakes – at such an elevation to be able to spill it upon turbines. 748,000 gallons – the same as 43 swimming pools – enjoy this privilege every second. 2 Together, the U.S. and Canadian power operations (which split the diverted hydro water under treaty) generate enough electricity to power over half of New York State’s households. 3

Renewability & Cleanliness

Hydropower is not dependent on fossil fuels, which have the dual deficit of being non-renewable (burn it once, gone forever) and pollution factories. The combined maximum output of the U.S. and Canadian operations is 4.9 kilowatts. As of 2013, there were only 11 thermal power plants in the world with greater capacity, each of which has smokestacks. 4

A coal power plant with the equivalent capabilities of Niagara Falls would require about 15 million tons of coal annually to operate. 5,6 A train long enough to carry this load would stretch from New York City to Dallas. 7 The EPA acknowledges several risks attached to coal, including:

  • Environmental degradation and water pollution from coal mining practices such as strip mining, mountaintop removal, and valley fill mining;
  • Pollutants from the burning of coal linked to respiratory illness including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates;
  • Global warming potential from CO2 and methane;
  • Release of mercury and other heavy metals posing developmental and neurological risks. 8

Let’s return to climate change. Burning coal to generate the same power as Niagara Falls would release the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of 110 billion miles of driving. That’s:

  • Two round trips from the Sun to Neptune;
  • 2.7 million times around the Earth at the equator. 9,10

Healthy Ecosystems

The integrity of ecosystems relies on letting nature operate as naturally as possible. Many hydropower systems of our world unfortunately do quite the opposite. Hoover Dam, for instance, addresses both energy and water scarcity. Its blockade of the once-mighty Colorado – now diminished by a sequence of dams – creates a huge reservoir, Lake Mead, which feeds Las Vegas, Nevada and six other states. However, as a result, this water never reaches the sea; degrading the natural landscape and threatening species, all the way to the barren Colorado delta, which has become a saline wasteland. 11

In the case of Niagara Falls, water flow is not stalled but diverted. The instrument for this, the International Control Dam, is poorly named. It is not actually a dam because it neither blocks the Niagara River nor produces power. Rather, the “dam” is a steel arm that controls the distribution of water between the Falls and conduits, American and Canadian, which deliver H2O to these countries’ respective power plants. 12 Even the reservoirs behind the power plants merely act as holding tanks, where water waits its turn to plunge into the dam. After this, it discharges into the River, rejoining its brethren recovering from an over-the-Falls adventure.

Effectively, the hydropower process functions as a detour. Water may not go its natural route, but it returns to the same place. The Falls may lose a bit of its natural force, true, but – unlike the Colorado – preserves its efficacy in moving water to the sea, sustaining the ecosystems along the way.

Low-Cost Energy

Niagara Falls hydropower isn’t just easier on the conscience and environment. It’s relatively inexpensive, making it a rare economic development engine. Countless startups have used the river’s economical, dependable, and basically inexhaustible power to grow their businesses. The roaring water also protects 27,000 Western New York jobs. 13 True, Elmhurst isn’t exactly a start-up at 95-years-old. But our second life as a sustainable plant-based company is Niagara-powered.

Elmhurst and the Future of Energy

Here are the Elmhurst products we use 100% Niagara Falls hydroelectricity to produce:

Yes, this is an ironic list: It’s all of them! And so it shall remain as our brand expands. Every product is driven by the same turbines; the same short, but certainly adventurous, river. For, hydroelectricity is our foundation. We may be lucky to live where we do, but there is some credit to making the most of it.

We hope our example – flowing from the architects of water power like Robert Moses, Sir Adam Beck, and Nicola Tesla – joins in a worldwide reconsideration of energy. According to the World Bank, as of 2015, about 16% of the world’s electricity was derived from hydro. 14 Coal represented 39%; fossil fuels as a whole, including oil and gas, 65%. This means humans are drawing 4x as much of their energy supply from non-renewable, emissions-intensive sources as water.

When one considers that not all hydroelectricity is ecologically friendly (in fact, there is a link between dams, displacement, and poverty with 45% of Earth’s low-income population drawing its energy from water – particularly dams), it’s clear that there is so much work ahead to make hydroelectricity accessible, environmental, and equitable. 14,15

It is also clear that Niagara-fueled Elmhurst is on the right side of the conversation. Clean label, clean power. It just fits.

References

  1. NYFalls. “Niagara Falls FAQ: Power Generation.” Accessed March 15, 2020. https://nyfalls.com/niagara-falls/faq-4/#much
  2. Niagara Power Project. “The Niagara Power Project: Clean Energy for NY.”
  3. United States Census Bureau. “Quick Facts, New York.” Accessed March 16, 2020. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/NY
  4. Power Technology, “‘Giga’ Projects – the World’s Biggest Thermal Power Plants.” November 27, 2013. https://www.power-technology.com/features/feature-giga-projects-the-worlds-biggest-thermal-power-plants/
  5. HowStuffWorks. “How Much Coal Is Required to Run a 100-watt Light Bulb 24 Hours a Day for a Year.” October 3, 2000. https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/question481.htm
  6. Hanania, Jordan et al. “Coal Fired Power Plant.” Energy Education. February 24, 2019. https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Coal_fired_power_plant
  7. Coal Train Facts. “Key Facts.” Accessed March 16, 2020. http://www.coaltrainfacts.org/key-facts
  8. U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Coal Explained: Coal and the Environment.” January 21, 2020. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/coal/coal-and-the-environment.php
  9. Center for International and Environmental Law. Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. May 2019. https://www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate/
  10. United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.” https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator
  11. Averill, Rebecca A. and Perla A. Vargas. “Impact of the Hoover Dam.” Introduction to Environmental Psychology, Arizona State University. Accessed March 17, 2020. https://environmentalpsychology.jimdofree.com/history-az-and-phoenix-1/impact-of-the-hoover-dam/
  12. Chariots of Fire Ltd. “International Control Dam.” Accessed March 20, 2020. https://www.tourniagarafalls.com/blog/international-control-dam
  13. Drudge, Drema. “Hydroelectric Wonder: The Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant.” The Municipal. February 3, 2014. http://www.themunicipal.com/2014/02/hydroelectric-wonder-the-robert-moses-niagara-power-plant/
  14. World Bank. Open Data. Accessed March 20, 2020. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.ELC.HYRO.ZS
  15. Walicki, Nadine, Michael J. Ionnides, and Bryan Tilt. “Dams and Internal Displacement: An Introduction.” Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. April 11, 2017. https://www.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/20170411-idmc-intro-dam-case-study.pdf

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