hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires





In energy and transport, finding future in the past


By coincidence this month’s paper features two stories from North Bennington, Vt., about efforts to revive technologies that disappeared from the local scene roughly 60 years ago.

Back in the early 1950s, the Rutland Railway abandoned all of its passenger train service, including a line through North Bennington, in the face of rising competition from cars and airlines. And just down the road, the owners of a local paper mill stopped generating their own power at a hydroelectric dam along the Walloomsac River.

Now, with energy prices spiking higher, a local entrepreneur is preparing to rebuild the hydropower facility at the old Vermont Tissue mill, installing new turbines that will allow it to supply energy to the town of Bennington and to several apartments in the renovated mill building.
At the same time, a study just completed for the states of Vermont and New York recommends reviving passenger rail service on the line through North Bennington as part of a through route between New York City and Rutland.

Taken together, the two projects hint at how much our region’s economy and priorities have evolved over the past six decades. They also reveal how difficult it can be to shift direction in sectors like energy and transportation in which the federal government is heavily involved.
As our cover story details, the Vermont Tissue project is one of at least a half-dozen around Vermont and the Berkshires in which developers are working to revive or expand small-scale hydroelectric stations to produce clean, renewable energy. Given that there are literally hundreds of mostly unused hydropower dams still in place around New England from 18th and 19th century industries, figuring out how to revive them may seem like a no-brainer.

But it turns out that reactivating long-dormant hydropower facilities can be pretty complicated. For one thing, old dams often wind up as collection points for environmental contaminants from past industrial activities. (Think PCBs.) Then there’s the question of how these installations affect fish.

Hydroelectric projects must meet with the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and developers need to navigate that agency’s requirements while also pursuing separate state permits. In the case of the North Bennington project, getting the required permits took five years. Some developers, despite their enthusiasm for the economic and green-energy potential of small-scale hydro, have decided they don’t have the time, money or patience needed to navigate the regulatory hurdles.

In the case of restoring passenger rail service, there’s a different set of obstacles, mainly the result of decisions made decades ago to pour nearly all of our transportation resources into highways.

So even though the federal government picked up 80 percent of the $200 million tab for building a bypass highway around the north side of Bennington in recent years, there’s essentially no federal money currently available to help with the estimated $138 million needed to get the North Bennington trains running. The rail project has strong support from a local citizens group and has been endorsed by state and town officials along its proposed route, but at this point it appears the necessary track upgrades would have to be accomplished on a piecemeal basis, likely over many years, before the first train rolls.

By then, we might be needing the trains a lot more and the bypass a lot less.