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American ingenuity
Covington manufacturer of turbines plans to expand
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While many companies have recently had to lay off employees or delay projects, Thomas Brothers Hydro Inc. in Newton County has made company history and plans to soon add around 20 high-tech employees to their staff.

The company recently designed, manufactured and tested a turbine runner, or a rotating member of a hydraulic turbine, for a hydroelectric plant in Maine. The 16,500 pound, 24,000 horse power runner is 12 feet in diameter. The steel and cast iron piece is the largest one Thomas Brothers has made.

"The runner, once installed within the dam and connected to an electric generator, will furnish enough electricity – green power – to power 5,500 homes," said Hoke Thomas, co-owner of Thomas Brothers Hydro.

In 1976, Hoke and his brother Mike purchased the old Snapping Shoals Mill Complex, which began supplying electric power for Covington in 1923.

The brothers began rebuilding the dam, canal, raceways and hydroelectric plant and soon incorporated under the laws of Georgia. Since then they have added buildings and equipment and created a successful business designing, manufacturing and installing hydroelectric equipment.

"I’ve had a lot of help," Thomas said. "We have good engineers and I’ve been given good advice – I’ve been blessed."

The company’s main customer base is utility companies around the country, but they have done work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and sent products as far north as Klemtu, British Columbia, and as far south as Valparaiso, Chile.

Thomas said he and his brother will soon retire and hand the keys of the company over to their children, who are also skilled engineers. However, Thomas and his brother have plans to implement cutting-edge technology in order to benefit local residents.

Through a process called electrolysis, the Thomas’ plant will use hydroelectricity to separate hydrogen from the water of the South River. The hydrogen can then be sold as fuel.

"Hydrogen is the most natural element we’ve got and it is renewable," Thomas said.

Thomas said he has already been contacted by a representative of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta and has spoken with his district’s county commissioner about using the hydrogen in county vehicles in order to save money.

"Any way we could work to save the taxpayers of Newton County money," Thomas said, "we will do it."

He said not only is hydrogen a less expensive fuel, but also it is a much cleaner alternative for the environment. He added that hydroelectricity is also a much greener option for generating power compared to the burning of coal, which powers most of Georgia.

While the brothers have spent a great deal of their personal monies preparing for the expansion, General Electric is financially backing the endeavor, according to Thomas.

Other plans for the brothers are to produce potable water for the county. Thomas said they did not want to compete with the county’s plans to build the Bear Creek Reservoir, but merely wanted to plan ahead for the ever-reaching "tentacles" or needs of metro Atlanta.

"It’ll be quite a facility," Thomas said, "and a blessing to the community."