Union School Hydroelectric Project
A note from the Project Leaders: There
is one error that continues throughout the article below: the
Twinfield students' legislation did not ask for a "loosening" of
the permitting requirements. In fact, it was just the opposite.
Their legislation (See Section 37 of S 209 for the final version)
asked for something that Vermont has not had and needs: rule-making
to clarify hydro permitting. We have never had a public process
to determine instream conservation flows for hydro. Without
that, hydro developers face an ever-changing permit climate
with no guidelines. There
is legislative precedent for setting rules on in-stream conservation
flows. It is now hydro's turn. Although the legislation does
not give us rule-making, it is a step in the right direction.
Hydro: Help or hazard?
Officials put brakes on small hydro proposal
February 24, 2008
By Peter Hirschfeld
MARSHFIELD – Deer and rabbit tracks lace the snow-covered banks along the
swimming hole known as "Paradise." In summer, hordes of local
swimmers occupy sun-splashed rocks on either side of the 25-foot-wide
river a half-mile behind Twinfield Union School.
"It's pretty well known for its nude swimmers," explains Emlyn Crocker, a Twinfield
Union School freshman.
But Crocker and two of her classmates, Ian Young and Brendan Popp, have more
than just a recreational interest in the spot. For more than a year, the students
have been fine tuning a proposal to supplant their school's conventional electricity
supply with power drawn from the Nasmith Brook, a tributary of the Winooski River.
The operation would divert water from the swimming hole through pipes, which
would feed turbines in a powerhouse buried under the Twinfield lawn.
"The school is spending $60,000 a year on electricity," Young says. "We think
we can provide three-fifths of that with hydroelectric power."
The plan has won consensus support from school administrators and district board
mem-bers alike. A turbine-manufacturing company even offered to donate equipment
that would help to defray the $300,000 cost of installing the hydroelectric system.
But tapping river power isn't as easy as installing the equipment. The small
trout streams traversing Vermont are among its most treasured natural resources,
and the Twinfield plan has run into many of the same regulatory hurdles that
have stymied other small hydroelectric proposals around the state.
The students have asked lawmakers to loosen the permitting process governing
hydroelectric facilities. But legislators, environmental advocates and Agency
of Natural Resources personnel are urging caution as more Vermonters seek to
harness the power of their rivers.
Clean, renewable energy has become the clarion call in this age of heightened
environmental awareness. The imminent expiration of contracts with Hydro Quebec
and Vermont Yankee has only intensified the search for alternate power supplies
Lori Barg, a Plainfield hydrologist, is the founder and executive director of
Community Hydro. Barg's operation is largely responsible for the bevy of small
hydro facility permit requests from towns, schools and businesses, received by
the Agency of Natural Resources over the last two years.
She says hydroelectric power, while not a panacea, could provide clean and affordable
energy to thousands of Vermonters living near the banks of rivers and streams.
"We can recognize the fact that we have water and hills, that we have 1,500 existing
dams … and that if we can find some way to improve Vermont's economy,
keep energy dollars in the state and at the same time protect aquatic ecology,
why not do it?" Barg says.
In fact, the state has a long history of working rivers. Vermonters first began
harvesting river power in the early 1800s, when mill owners used water to power
saws and grain refineries. In the 20th century, hydroelectric dams made their
debut on various rivers around the state.
Hydropower had its greatest boom three decades ago, in response to the energy
crisis of the 1970s.
Oil shortages caused by the Arab oil embargo prompted the federal
government to promote the production of "renewable" energy sources.
The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 effectively
broke the utilities' monopoly on the power-generation business,
forcing them to purchase power from independent suppliers of
renewable energy at fair market prices.
Dozens of abandoned mill impoundments along Vermont's rivers suddenly became
business opportunities, and a number of Vermonters flocked like prospectors to
But the hydro boom fizzled by the mid-1980s.
Many maintain that Vermont has largely tapped its hydro potential, a claim bolstered
by the fact that, until two years ago, the state went 20 years without getting
a single permit request for a new hydroelectric facility.
But Barg says the economics of small hydro – generally defined as a facility
less than five megawatts (in Vermont, most proposals are well under a single
megawatt) – still work for Vermont. The state now has 15
hydroelectric proposals pending review.
"We have hundreds of dams and there's anywhere between dozens and hundreds of
megawatts capacity just waiting for us," Barg says.
The amount of additional energy that could be derived from Vermont's
rivers is a point of contention. The estimated range – somewhere between 15 megawatts
and 420 megawatts – attests to the lack of an authoritative
study to determine capacity. Barg pegs the figure at 90 megawatts.
The Agency of Natural Resources says it's closer to 25 megawatts.
Vermont's base load – the amount of energy capacity needed to supply the
state's electricity needs – is 650 megawatts.
Barg, who has worked closely with the Twinfield students, says unnecessarily
tight restrictions on hydroelectric power have hampered her and her clients'
ability to tap this promising source of power.
Unlike the regulations governing water diversion from rivers
for snowmaking operations – which
set a minimum "in-stream flow" threshold across the board – the
ANR evaluates hydroelectric proposals on a case-by-case basis.
In the absence of overarching standards, spelled out in rules,
the agency has total discretion over whether a hydroelectric
proposal meets the minimum-flow threshold needed to get a water-quality
permit. That can complicate matters for projects like the one
proposed for the Nasmith Brook. Barg says she's calculated the
impact of the hydro project on flow levels at the site. The minimum
flow, she says, would be higher than at many snowmaking sites,
thus ensuring minimal impact of the fish and other organisms
Despite this evidence, she says, the applicants have been asked to conduct an
expensive fish study that would render the project economically unfeasible.
Last year, Barg says, the Douglas administration commissioned
an Agency of Natural Resources study that promised a "simple, predictable" permit
process. The resulting document concluded that hydro permits
would continue to be granted on a case-by-case basis. Barg says
obtaining the water-quality permits needed to install hydroelectric
facilities on Vermont's rivers is as convoluted and unreliable
"I can go to the Internet, download a stream alteration permit, fill out the
required information and get an answer in a reasonable amount of time," Barg
says. "But we don't have that for hydro."
Brian Fitzgerald is an ecologist for the Agency of Natural Resources. He says
the state takes its responsibility for approving water-quality certificates required
for hydroelectric facilities very seriously.
"It's important to understand that we're dealing public waters," Fitzgerald says. "The
agency is charged with seeing we're good stewards of these resources,
so it's important that when those resources are developed or used, it be done
in a way that they're not degraded."
The term "small" hydro, Fitzgerald says, should not be confused
with low impact. Hundred-kilowatt operations on smaller rivers,
he says, can be more environmentally destructive than 10-megawatt
operations on larger ones. Determining with precision the potential
impact of a project, he says, is a process that sometimes requires
intensive studies on individual sites.
"It's what's necessary to meet that stewardship mandate," Fitzgerald says.