Re-Milling the Genesee Valley
“About one mile and a half south of Avon village,” E.H. Davis writes, “where the Conesus outlet cuts through the bluffs to reach the Genesee river, a little picturesque hamlet greets the eye as you drive by the old stage route from Geneseo to Avon. To contemplate now its drowsy listlessness, one would hardly imagine that it was once a busy little manufacturing mart, hardly second, in that respect, to any other place in the county.” Not much has changed since this 1888 description of the Glen Avon Mills site, except perhaps the speed at which drivers pass by along NY Route 63, and nothing would be easier than to look back upon small-scale hydropower as a quaint but obsolete technology.
In the face of rapid global warming, however, “heirloom technologies” are receiving renewed interest. Envisioning a transition from fossil fuels to non-carbon energy means that even micro- or pico-hydropower (generating up to 100 kilowatts and under 5 kilowatts, respectively) warrant careful consideration. Such projects are in fact now being undertaken—but usually in rural areas of foreign countries, as part of so-called development or electrification projects. Why would a modern economy ever need that? This sort of cultural hubris slowly is changing at the local level, as for example with the Renewable Heritage Trust in North Yorkshire, England, where residents formed a non-profit to restore an 18th-century mill for electric generation.
At least two other important obstacles stand in the way of valuing mills as part of a sustainable energy policy. First, there is an assumption that renewable energies must replace all of current American consumption, which has tripled since 1950. Is this level actually sustainable, or might mills appear more realistic in tandem with aggressive conservation and an “energy descent”? Secondly, since hydroelectric plants were developed in the 1880s, virtually all water power has been for that purpose and undertaken at a massive scale (with great damage to river ecosystems). Kris De Decker argues that this is needlessly wasteful. Whereas early wooden water wheels had efficiencies ranging from 5-60%, iron water wheels and eventually turbines of the 19th century increased that to 85%. But when direct mechanical energy is converted to electricity at all the steps along the way—from production, to transmission, to home consumption—it is reduced back to something like 50% efficiency. He suggests that site-specific direct hydropower is a much better use of smaller streams, a model resembling in many ways our area’s past practices.
Meanwhile, numerous mill sites lie dormant in our watery bioregion—at least four major ones along the creek between Conesus Lake and the Genesee River. There were mills located in Mt. Morris, Penn Yan, Dansville, Honeoye Falls, and many other communities—Rochester alone had two dozen, most of them used to grind “Genesee Wheat.” By midcentury an estimated 71,000 watermills operated in the United States before a precipitous decline caused by wood- , coal-, and oil-powered engines. Perhaps it is time that we began rethinking our milling heritage in the present and future verb tenses.
Otterton Mill, Devon UK
For a glimpse at how 19th-century water mills operated, this video of the Otterton Mill in Devon, England is useful. Probably more complex than those constructed in the Genesee Valley, its principles and minimal carbon footprint are similar.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) still is inflected by a paradigm of economic growth and bringing "progress" to rural districts. But some of its supported technologies are relatively low-impact and local in scale. Here, small-scale hydroelectric projects give us a glimpse of how they might be used at appropriate locations in the water-rich Genesee Valley.
--Davis, E.H. “Avon.” 3-6 in Twelfth Annual Meeting of the Livingston County Historical Society. Dansville, NY: Bunnell & Oberdorf, 1888.
--De Decker, Kris. “Back to Basics: Direct Hydropower.” Low-Tech Magazine 11 Aug. 2013.
--O’Connor, Peter A., and Cutler J. Cleveland. “U.S. Energy Transitions 1780-2010.” Energies 7 (2014): 7955-7993.