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A River Runs It

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In these electronic gadget-saturated times it’s hard to imagine that a century ago, electricity was scarce, and expensive, in the United States. Inventor James W. Dawson of San Francisco proposed a solution: small-scale floating power plants that would draw energy from streams and rivers. Such machines “will be found especially serviceable for generating electricity to operate ice machinery in small towns where it would be otherwise impracticable to have a cold storage plant,” wrote Dawson in his 1907 patent application. “A large number of small plants of this character would be of incalculable value to … farmers and fruit growers.”

The idea wasn’t exactly a hit, but it did make the cover of Practical Electrics magazine—albeit 17 years later. The concept was still plenty relevant, though: in 1924 there were about 6.37 million farm homes in the U.S., but only about three percent of them had electricity.

That changed quickly, as the national power grid expanded to reach nearly all of those farms and the rest of America. But it turns out Dawson was on to something. Today, a growing number of isolated communities, from the mountains of China and Peru to the highlands of Scotland, are getting electricity from a range of “microhydro power” projects similar in concept to Dawson’s.