December 8, 2006
The Burlington Free Press

By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer

MIDDLEBURY -- Otter Creek crashed and roared under the southern arch of Battell Bridge, spraying mist into the unnaturally balmy air of a late November afternoon.

Dr. Anders Holm, a Middlebury ear, nose and throat surgeon, stood on the banks adding two and two: A world warming from human use of fossil fuels; a river pouring with great power over an abandoned hydroelectric dam.

The answer seemed as obvious as first-grade arithmetic: Tap the river for at least some of the clean power it could provide.

That's just what Holm and his father, Peter, are proposing. They have drafted plans for a small hydroelectric project Anders Holm says could generate enough electricity to power nearly 1,000 homes -- without diverting water from the river's scenic main falls.

"We've thought about the idea over the years, but as the world gets warmer, I've been thinking about it every day -- especially on days like this," Holm said, as the sun peeked out and the mercury climbed toward 60 degrees.

Water power once ran sawmills and gristmills across Vermont; hundreds of small dams remain. In recent years, those dams have most often been viewed as undesirable barriers to fish passage. Now some are being reassessed as small but potentially valuable sources of energy.

One big obstacle threatens to stall Holm's project and others: "Small hydro is not developed because the permitting and environmental hurdles make it unaffordable," said Lori Barg, a Plainfield hydrogeologist and consultant on small hydro development.

When the Vermont Legislature reconvenes in January, clean energy and climate change will stand near the top of lawmakers' agenda. Advocates of small hydro development will be among those lining up to suggest ways the state can reduce energy consumption and encourage clean-energy projects.

They are likely to get a sympathetic hearing, lawmakers say.

"Vermont should lead other states, on renewables, on energy efficiency," said Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham. "If we don't change the way we lead our lives, we're not going to have a livable planet to pass on to our grandchildren."

Getting to 'yes'

Holm's Middlebury project gives hydro advocates an ideal example to take to the Legislature. The falls and dam already exist. So does the partial diversion of the river's flow into a sluice hugging the south bank. Holm's plan calls for directing some of that water into a big tube, or penstock, buried under the south bank to a powerhouse hidden under a pedestrian bridge.

Unlike earlier proposals for the site, Holm's plan would not diminish -- and might slightly increase -- the amount of water pouring over the main falls, he said.

Middlebury selectmen voted in October to work with the Holm family, and the town is seeking up to $20,000 from the state Clean Energy Fund for feasibility studies. The town owns water-power rights to the site, and land on the riverbank. The Holms own the old four-story brick building on the river's south bank, former home of the now-defunct the town electric department.

"It's a project we ought to figure out how to make work. The object ought to be to get to 'yes,' not to think of reasons it won't work." said Rob Ide, energy efficiency director in the state Public Service Department.

Holm's project is little by national standards, but is comparable in size to some of the smaller hydro plants operated by Vermont utilities. But many of the old dams Barg has surveyed would produce only tiny amounts of power. These "micro-hydro" projects might produce enough electricity to power a few homes or a town's streetlights, for example.

Nevertheless, the total potential is substantial. Vermont has more than 1,000 dams, only 95 of them tapped for hydropower. Past studies suggest electric generation is feasible at enough of the remaining dams to generate between 175 and 440 megawatts of electricity, Barg said. Last year, Vermont's electrical demand peaked at about 1,100 megawatts.

Ide said he has had recent inquiries about dam sites in Bennington and Greensboro, where the town Energy Committee is interested in the potential of an old mill site on Greensboro Creek, as well as Hardwick.

Barg, a former Plainfield selectman, wants her town to study making power from an existing dam on the Winooski River. The dam might be able to generate enough electricity to run the school, water plant, wastewater plant and town garage -- with power left over, she said. Other potential sites around Vermont might produce only enough for a single home or group of homes.

At least one city, Barre, is studying the feasibility of using the force of water in pipes leading from its rural reservoir to generate enough power to reduce its electric bills.

Weighing the costs

Holm said consultants estimate the cost of building his hydro project at $3 million to $3.5 million. The killer, he said, is the three to five years -- and the $400,000 to $500,000 -- he has been told it could take to win state and federal approval for the hydro plant.

"That's up-front money that my family would have to put up without any guarantee of success. It's prohibitive," he said.

Even small hydro projects require a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a process that requires the state to review and approve a project's impact on water quality. Winning that approval can require lengthy, costly environmental studies.

Copyright, 2006, The Times Argus


Community Hydro, LLC
113 Bartlett Road • Plainfield, VT 05667