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




From old mills, local power

Industrial legacy adds to region’s clean-energy potential


Contributing writer

A. Perry Heller photos


Bill Scully says he had an epiphany while driving home on Christmas Day in 2008, past the historic mills and dams of southern Vermont.

“Why,” he recalls wondering, “when there is an energy crisis, am I living in a town with five dams that aren’t being used?”
The next year, Scully bought the former Vermont Tissue Mill, on the banks of the Walloomsac River in North Bennington, with the goal of reactivating the mill’s old hydroelectric dam to produce clean, renewable energy for the community.

Now, after a state and federal permitting process that has consumed much of the past five years, construction at the former mill is expected to begin this year. The project will provide new turbines for the mill’s hydropower facility, which has been inactive since the 1950s, enabling it to supply energy for the town of Bennington and for several planned apartments in the renovated mill building.

Scully’s project is one of a handful around the state that together may represent the beginnings of a revival for small-scale hydropower in Vermont. As recently as the 1940s, in-state hydroelectric dams generated more than 90 percent of the state’s power. Today, more than 1,000 small dams remain in place around Vermont, though fewer than 100 are still generating electricity.

Scully, a local restaurateur and business owner, said Vermont’s mountainous terrain, high rainfall and low population density make it ideal for small-scale hydropower production.

In addition to the Vermont Tissue Mill project, Scully also is working to retrofit a dam on the Hoosic River in North Pownal that once powered the Pownal Tanning Co. That project, he said, isn’t as far along in the permitting process and faces a different set of challenges -- including what to do with PCB deposits left over from industrial activity upstream in Massachusetts.
The revival of hydroelectric stations has sometimes been controversial with conservation and anglers’ organizations that would prefer to see old dams removed, but Scully and others said both the Vermont Tissue project and the proposed redevelopment of the North Pownal dam would likely result in improved fish and wildlife habitat.

Small-scale hydro projects tend to use the natural flow of rivers, rather than the power of water stored behind dams. These “run-of-the-river” facilities can be found throughout the country, but especially in areas with an abundance of small dams. They usually do not significantly alter river flows, and fish passage upstream and downstream can be preserved through the use of fish ladders.

The Hoosic River Watershed Association, based in Williamstown, Mass., generally supports run-of-the-river projects, but only a few in the Hoosic River watershed have been proposed in recent years.

“Where there previously was hydropower, or where the facilities existed but without major disruption to the river, … we think it’s a good idea and generally have spoken in favor of those things,” said Steve McMahon, the group’s executive director. “But at the same time, we are working to remove dams that impede fish and aquatic life passage, either upstream or downstream.”

The Hoosic River group is working to remove several dams in the area, including the Henry Bridge Dam in Bennington – a project that is just getting started – and three smaller dams in the Pecks Brook in Adams, Mass. The Briggsville Dam in Clarksburg, Mass., was removed in 2012, improving habitat for brook trout and the state-listed long-nosed sucker.


Berkshire County projects
New England is home to thousands of small dams left over from industries of the 18th and 19th centuries, when rivers were the main power source for manufacturing. Scully pointed out that the issue of whether it’s better to remove or retrofit a dam depends on the details at each site.

“What’s it made out of? How old is it? What’s the fish passage like? How much energy can it generate? Does it have other benefits? Does it help with flood control? There are so many different things to weigh when looking at it,” he said.

South of Scully’s Hoosic River site, two projects to revive hydropower stations in Berkshire County are nearing completion. On the Housatonic River, the historic Glendale Dam in Stockbridge, owned by Enel Green Power of North America, will likely resume operation this summer after a 165-kilowatt upgrade. And the Shaker Mill Dam, on the Williams River in West Stockbridge, has been retrofitted with a small turbine but is still awaiting federal approval before it can start producing power.

Crane & Co., a paper manufacturer in Dalton, Mass., is now producing about 930,000 kilowatts per year at its newly renovated hydroelectric facility on the East Branch of the Housatonic River.
The $3 million Glendale project received a $600,000 grant last year from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a state agency funded by the state’s utility customers. The $2.5 million Crane & Co. project received $500,000 from the center, which has contributed a total of at least $7 million since 2007 toward upgrades to existing hydroelectric facilities across the state.
In Vermont, installing turbines at the 300 or so hydro-capable dams around the state could generate about 90 megawatts per year, according to a 2007 study by Lori Barg, founder of Community Hydro, a development and consulting company in Plainfield. (By comparison, the state’s solar and wind facilities together make up about 220 megawatts of installed capacity.)
Despite the potential, however, only three hydroelectric projects in Vermont have been approved since 1987.

Barg recently sold two hydropower facilities that she developed on the West River in southern Vermont – a 2.5-megawatt facility at Ball Mountain in Jamaica, and a smaller one in Townsend. Both facilities were added to flood-control dams that were built by the Army Corps of Engineers about 50 years ago but had never produced electricity. Barg expects both sites to be operating by the end of the year.

By helping to fill a weak spot in the Vermont electrical grid, where the flow of energy is constrained, the Ball Mountain facility may also allow the state to avoid having to make an expensive transmission upgrade.

High cost, red tape

One reason for the slow progress in redeveloping Vermont’s hydropower stations in recent decades is simply the high cost of retrofitting dams, said Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, a nonprofit trade association.

Compared with solar and wind, hydropower usually requires a higher upfront investment for equipment and installation, she said. It often pays off over time, however, with a longer lifespan, lower maintenance and more consistent generation.

The bigger challenge, Stebbins said, is the lengthy and complicated federal permitting process. The same challenges also apply to dam removal, she said.

“Both are long, expensive processes that involve multiple types of permits,” she said. “And there isn’t always necessarily alignment between the permits and across the permits, in terms of looking at different agencies, be it at the federal level or the state level.”

Two years ago, Vermont legislators moved to streamline the process by directing various state agencies to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the permitting agency for all hydropower projects in the United States.

As a result, a team representing the three state agencies directly involved in the permitting process – the Public Service Department, the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development – has drafted a screening process by which developers may qualify for case-by-case assistance from the state, including site visits and preliminary assessments.

According a progress report last year from the state Public Service Department, the FERC has encouraged developers to use exemptions and other existing elements of the Federal Power Act to speed up their applications.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, a law enacted last year changed the permitting process to allow conduit (pipe-based) projects of less than 5 megawatts to qualify for an exemption. The new law also raised the threshold for exemptions for other small hydroelectric projects from 5 to 10 megawatts.

But Anne Margolis of the Vermont Public Service Department said those changes do not affect the majority of projects in Vermont, which already are smaller than 5 megawatts.

The state agencies concluded that the best way to achieve the goal of a more streamlined permitting process was “to provide greater assistance to developers early on in a project, to better coordinate communications to developers and to FERC, and to identify projects that could gain support from the state resource agencies,” according to the state report.

Barg was one of several hydro developers in Vermont with whom the state team consulted in 2013. She said the progress so far, which includes the creation of a one-page guide for developers, “is good, but it’s not enough.”

Among other things, she said, the state and federal governments need to adopt standard terms and conditions such as those that exist in the United Kingdom, where approvals for hydroelectric projects take only four to six months.

The state agencies will continue gathering feedback from stakeholders in May and will likely develop a final screening process for developers this summer.


Rediscovering water power
Scully pointed out that Vermont’s cautious approach to hydroelectric development is partly the result of negative public attitudes toward large-scale hydro development in other areas. Hydro-Quebec’s James Bay hydroelectric project, for example, flooded thousands of square miles in northern Quebec beginning in 1971, disrupting local Cree and Inuit communities, and led to prolonged conflict.

By the late 1980s, Scully said, Vermont was taking an extremely conservative approach to hydropower.

“Now you’re starting to see that pendulum swing,” he said. “And in my opinion, that’s because Vermont is trying to really be aggressive in renewable energy.”

In 2012, hydropower accounted for about 17 percent of Vermont’s total in-state energy production, compared with just 2.5 percent in Massachusetts and 18 percent in New York (mainly because of the colossal Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant).

Vermont’s comprehensive energy plan, one of the most ambitious in the country, aims for the state to draw 90 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050. Most of the state’s energy today comes from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, and from Hydro-Quebec, which also supplies energy to other New England states and New York. With Vermont Yankee expected to close this year, Scully said, Vermont will need to use all of its existing resources to meet its long-term energy goals.

Tapping into hydropower, he added, will help by adding another element to the state’s mix of renewable energy sources.

“If it rains, it’s really bad for solar but good for hydro,” Scully said. “If it’s really sunny for a long time, it’s good for solar, not so good for hydro. No matter what we do, it needs to be a dynamic plan.”

Scully said that during the permitting process for the Vermont Tissue Mill, he received “an enormous amount of local support – from the citizens, from the town of Bennington, from the Bennington County Regional Commission – to a state level with all of our representatives.”
He said he believes North Bennington can serve as a model for other communities that want to support small-scale hydropower and other renewable energy efforts.

When it comes to addressing Vermont’s energy needs, he added, it helps to live in a community where people aren’t so defined by their political views.

“You kind of know all the players, but whatever party you’re in doesn’t matter,” Scully said. “Everybody seems to be very like-minded in the sense that we all agree that we need to do something about this.”