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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright, 2006, The Times Argus