By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Legislature will play a huge role this year in determining whether a small-scale hydroelectricity project proposed for the Otter Creek Falls in Middlebury — and similar ventures throughout the state — will sink or swim.
“We will hopefully use this plan for others, throughout the state, as an ice-breaker,” said Anders Holm, who is spearheading the project, last week. “Legislation is being penned as we sit here.”
That legislation, being shepherded by Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, would set up new state laws that would exempt from federal oversight hydro-power projects generating less than 5 megawatts of electricity; and simplify the state permitting process for small-scale hydro proposals.
“I think people are going to welcome this (legislation) and I think it is something we want to do,” said Ayer, the new Senate majority whip and a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. “I’m not saying it’s a slam-dunk, but I think everyone supports the idea of clean energy and renewable energy.”
Early last year Holm put together plans for a hydro turbine that would be installed under his family’s Main Street building that borders the Battell Bridge on the south side of the falls in downtown Middlebury.
Holm has hired hydro engineers to design the project, which he said could generate between 1 megawatt and 3 megawatts of power — without disrupting the flow of water over the Otter Creek Falls. One megawatt of power can supply electricity to roughly 1,000 local homes, according to Holms.
The plan, which Middlebury selectmen have endorsed in concept, calls for the hydro-power infrastructure to be concealed as much as possible within terrain on the Frog Hollow side of the Otter Creek shoreline. For example, the proposed powerhouse would be erected under the footbridge that links the Marble Works complex to Frog Hollow.
“Great pains have been taken to integrate it with existing structures,” Holm said. “This plan was designed to be minimally invasive.”
While Holm has received some good feedback about his project at the local and statewide level, he is concerned that the current requirement of a federal review would add several years and thousands of dollars to the permitting process.
Currently, all hydro power projects must be reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Holm explained. It’s a long, often arduous and site-specific review that can often take years to navigate, he said.
“The Hoover Dam goes through the same process we do,” Holm said. “It can be extremely expensive and time consuming.”
With that in mind, Holm is hoping the Vermont Legislature will take the same action the Alaska General Assembly took a few years ago, when it passed a new law exempting small-scale hydro projects from FERC review.
Such a step would give the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources discretion over the approval process for hydro-power projects generating less than 5 megawatts.
Holm stressed the change would not give developers a cake-walk toward their hydro permits. Rather, it would create a more predictable, cost-efficient process for developers to follow.
“This process is not going to ease the requirements, but just make the process faster and less expensive,” Holm said. “You will still need to fit the criteria, but instead of taking seven or eight years, the process will hopefully only take you seven or eight months. We’re not talking about lowering the standards.”
Vermont’s federal lawmakers are receptive to pushing for Vermont’s hydro oversight proposal in the nation’s capital, according to Holm. A bill passed by the Vermont Legislature would give even greater momentum to effort in Washington, D.C., according to Holm.
“Other states have done it,” Holm said.
In then meantime, Holm will continue to look at funding for his project, which could cost upwards of $1 million. Among other things, he is exploring the possibility of collaborating with Central Vermont Public Service Corp. (CVPS) on a deal through which the Otter Creek hydro turbine would send electricity into the state’s power grid. CVPS would then sell electricity generated by the turbine at a premium to consumers interested in accessing clean, renewable energy — much as it does through its “Cow Power” manure-to-energy program. The premium revenues from the so-called “H2E program” would help Holm and other prospective investors pay off the project more quickly.
Holm also hopes his and similar projects get a boost on Town Meeting Day this March, when voters in many Vermont towns will field an advisory question pitched by the Vermont Small Hydro Association (VSHA). The question asks voters to urge Gov. James Douglas and state and federal legislators to “simplify state and federal permitting to allow for more rapid development of environmentally sound, small-scale hydroelectric projects.”
Ayer pledged to do all she could in the Legislature this year to advance the cause of small-scale hydro proposals. The effort may not see smooth sailing, she cautioned.
“The idea is not a tough sell,” Ayer said. “But once we get down to looking at the details, everyone will want a dog in the race.”