In Barton

Is there power in those old falls?

by Richard Creaser

BARTON — A century ago Barton was at the center of a vibrant manufacturing trade.  Those mills and factories drew their power from the outlet from Crystal Lake.  The village of Barton, spurred on by talks with Community Hydro of Plainfield, is reexamining the waterway as a potential source of power for the twenty-first century.

“Considering the resistance to wind power in this area, taking another look at hydro seemed like a good idea,” said Dave Snedeker.

Mr. Snedeker is chairman of the Barton Village Trustees.  He met with Lori Barg, the consulting geologist who founded and runs Community Hydro, to discuss the untapped potential of hydroelectric power in Barton.

Barton Village Electric already operates a hydro facility along the Clyde River in Charleston.  In spite of pressure to sell the dam, both to avoid the costly licensing process and improvements necessary to keep it operational, the village retained the plant.  That decision has proven to be a wise one.

As electric rates around the state, and the nation, have escalated, Barton Village’s rates have managed to remain fairly level.  Where the village rates were once among the highest in the state, the rates of other utilities are now catching up to and surpassing them.

Micro-hydroelectric projects could fuel a commercial renaissance. In addition to reducing the state’s reliance on imported power and the fickleness of fluctuating rates, in-state hydro could stimulate economic growth by virtue of providing stable electric rates to consumers.

“Hydro isn’t new and sexy,” Ms. Barg said. “It’s old, it’s tried and tested.”

A century ago much of the power used in the state was generated here via hydropower.  The imprint of those ancient factories, the concrete skeletons of their dams remain still, scattered across the Vermont landscape.  Ms. Barg believes it is high time that Vermont turns again to its rivers and streams to provide its own electricity.

“I think it was the lack of a grid that really sounded the death knell of hydro,” Ms. Barg said.

When the factories that operated the dams closed, there was no effective means to continue to harness and transmit the power these dams generated to the people who needed it.  As the years went on, the dams fell into disuse or were decommissioned one after the other.  Vermont’s hydroelectric history was fading as quickly as the textile mills and buggy whip factories that launched it into prominence.

Through Community Hydro, Ms. Barg is cataloging and assessing the potential generation capacity of these old dams.  Ms. Barg’s work is particularly important in light of discrepancies surfacing in old studies prepared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the federal Department of Energy.  She is attempting to uncover some of the redundancies in the two studies, and to identify the dams using unique identifying numbers.

“The numbers they gave them don’t always agree,” she said.

The two studies, conducted in 1988 and 1996 respectively, identified between 351 and 421 megawatts of undeveloped hydropower in the state.  By comparison, the state’s peak load use measures about 1,100 megawatts and its base load, the average consumption, is approximately 700 megawatts of electricity.

One of the biggest hurdles to bringing these old dams back online lies in the regulatory process.  Not only is the process lengthy, it is also quite costly. Those costs can greatly diminish an investor’s or a municipality’s interest in resurrecting these dams.

“It really comes down to the bottom line,” said Mr. Snedeker.  “We need to see what it would cost to get something up and running at Crystal Lake when we have a hydro plant that is only running at half capacity.”

The Barton trustees have wrestled with the question of whether or not to bond to replace a second, non-functioning hydro turbine at the Clyde River plant.  A major concern is whether or not the village would receive approval to run sufficient water through the dam to power a second turbine.

“I think we need to find a different way to permit hydro power that is still environmentally sound,” Ms. Barg said. “We have enough studies to tell us how much water fish need to swim upstream.  We don’t need to do a new study every time this comes up.”

In some respects municipalities have advantages that private investors do not.  A private enterprise needs to see relatively immediate returns, something that is not always possible or plausible on a micro-hydro project.  A municipality, on the other hand, can take advantage of extending the cost of a bond over ten to 20 years.

“They can take the long view and see this as an investment for the future,” Ms. Barg said.  “If you own the resource and maintain the infrastructure, you have something that’s going to benefit you for many, many years.”

The state acknowledges the potential for, and limitations of, hydro generation in the state in its policy statement posted on the Environmental Protection Agency web site.  The policy views the greatest potential growth stemming from updating existing dams or “repowering” old dams, rather than attempting to site new facilities.

“However the cost of both options is high compared to the price of competing nonrenewable fuels,” the policy states. “Significant increases in electric production from in-state hydro power are unlikely unless the greater environmental and social costs of competing fuels are considered.”

Those environmental and social costs are increasingly evident in the discussions over global warming, the price of oil, and the effects of our current national energy policy.  Hydroelectric power has never been a more attractive option, Ms. Barg said.

“If there’s one thing Vermont has a lot of, it’s water and hills,” she said.  “It’s our resource, it’s our economy and our jobs.  We can make this work.”



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