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Hydro energy plan advances

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Representatives of the Vermont Public Service Board were scheduled to be in Middlebury’s Frog Hollow this Thursday, June 15, to size up Anders and Peter Holm’s plans to install a water turbine that would generate hydroelectricity from the Otter Creek Falls.

The Addison Independent first reported in March that the Holms were considering the possibility of installing a water turbine beneath their Main Street building that borders the Otter Creek Falls.

Their plan has since gained some new momentum and some additional power. Anders Holm said the turbine as currently envisioned would we able to generate 3 to 5 megawatts of electricity, up from the 500 kilowatts to 1 megawatt that had been originally anticipated. That kind of juice, Holm said, could supply power to “a large portion of the town of Middlebury” at times when the Otter Creek is robust and churning.

There also will be times of the year, such as in August, when the water turbine would be able to tap little or no hydroelectricity from the creek.

The Holms recently hired two consultants — one to sort out technical details of the project, the other (Middlebury-based LandWorks) to map out how the project could fit aesthetically into what is now one of the town’s most picturesque locales.

“We now have a concrete plan on what we are proposing,” Anders Holm said on Monday. “It would be a collaborative effort with the town of Middlebury.”

A collaboration with Middlebury will be essential, because the project would require placing some of the hydroelectric infrastructure on municipal land bordering the Otter Creek. Moreover, the town owns the power generation rights for the Otter Creek in the falls area.

Here’s how the Holms’ project is currently mapped out:

• A penstock (a tube, or sluice) would be installed to channel water, underground, from beneath the Holm building on Main Street to a powerhouse that would be located near the base of the footbridge linking Frog Hollow to the Marble Works shopping complex. That powerhouse would be at the Frog Hollow end of the bridge.

• A water turbine in the powerhouse would create electricity, which the Holms want to sell back to the state’s power grid. The Holms hope that Central Vermont Public Service Corp. (CVPS) would market the Middlebury-made hydroelectric power to consumers, in the way it does with “Cow Power” made from manure-to-energy operations like the Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport. Holm noted the water turbine could also generate enough electricity to power some municipal services, such as Middlebury’s downtown streetlights.

• After coming into contact with the turbine, the water would be diverted from the powerhouse back into the Otter Creek through a conduit known as a “tailrace.”

Holm is confident the hydroelectric project would not be an eyesore — or an ear sore — in scenic Frog Hollow.

He said great pains would be taken to place as much conduit underground as possible. Holm said he will explore the feasibility of building the powerhouse into the river bank as a way of making it as unobtrusive as possible. He added the powerhouse would be heavily insulated to minimize noise generated by the water turbine.

Ultimately, Holm believes the hydroelectric project could help beautify Jessica Swift Park, located near the base of the Otter Creek Falls. The park is often partially submerged by the unbridled current that now gushes through the flume underneath the Holm building. Properly channeling that water through a penstock would keep more of the park dry, thereby making it easier to maintain for visitors’ enjoyment, according to Holm.

Plans call for the Holms to formally request local permission for their project next month. In the meantime, they are refining their proposal and reaching out to other entities that will have to sign off on the project, including the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Along with some potential environmental hurdles, the Holms will have to find out whether they’ll have to build a “fish ladder” to accommodate fish that might want to get up the Otter Creek Falls.

They’ll also have to sort out financing of the hydro-project, roughly estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million.

With help from the group Addison County Relocalization Network (ACoRN), the Holms are considering a renewable energy cooperative through which citizens could purchase shares in the Middlebury hydro project. Shareholders would receive a return on their investment as power is sold back to the state grid.

“We will certainly encourage support of the project by the community,” said Greg Pahl, a founder of the group, which is focused on making Addison County more self-sufficient and less dependent on foreign oil.

“More and more people are starting to think along these lines,” he said, referring to renewable energy alternatives.

Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington met with Anders Holm on Monday morning to hear more details about the project. He said it will be key for the Holms to let the public know that their proposal in nothing like a much larger hydroelectric proposal that had been pitched for the Otter Creek Falls during the early 1980s. People, at the time, were concerned that larger project would have dramatically affected the aesthetics of Frog Hollow and greatly stemmed the flow of the Otter Creek.

Kerrick Johnson, director of governmental affairs for CVPS, said the state’s largest utility has had “two productive conversations” with the Holms.

“We provided some advice on how these gentlemen could clarify their project,” Johnson said, adding, “I would say we are very interested.”

While he said CVPS currently has all the power it needs, the Vermont Legislature has recently approved measures that will require the state to invest more heavily in renewable energy during the coming years. One of those measures, Johnson said, requires the state to tap renewable energy for half of its load growth between now and 2012.

The state is also making it more financially attractive for entrepreneurs to tap renewable energy sources, according to Johnson. He specifically cited the newly created Clean Energy Development Fund, which can be tapped for initiatives that promote in-state renewable energy.

“The world has changed,” Johnson said. “This (Middlebury) proposal is just the tip of the iceberg.”

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