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State, feds to review local hydpower proposal

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Developers of a proposed small-scale hydro operation at the Otter Creek Falls in Middlebury recently filed the requisite state and federal permit applications for their project, and have shifted their focus back to becoming a wholesale producer of electricity rather than an exclusive provider of power to portion of the town and Middlebury College.

Anders Holm, whose family is spearheading the project, said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is reviewing a preliminary application for the project, while the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) is determining whether the plan can receive a water quality permit.

“Our preliminary FERC application has been accepted. That’s in, and we’re getting as much information as we can about the specifics of the site at this time, still looking at how much power it’s going to make,” Holm said on Thursday. “The preliminary application is just letting FERC know that there is ongoing interest in the site and we are doing some of the preliminary steps and they can expect more information from us in the future.”

The plan includes a water turbine that would harness electricity from the creek as it flows through a flume under a building (owned by the Holms) that borders the south side of the Otter Creek Falls. The project also includes a powerhouse, a penstock of approximately 120 feet long by 7.5-feet in circumference, and a transmission line of around 500 feet.

In an effort to expedite the ANR’s review of the project, Holm has asked the agency to review a previous, more ambitious hydropower project application that had been submitted by central Vermont Public Service Corp. (CVPS) for the same site around 20 years ago. The project was never implemented.

“Our experts are pouring over that data, to see if we can assure the state and the federal government — which I’m sure that we can — that we can come in way below what (authorities) considered to be acceptable back in the ’80s,” Holm said.

“Our project really, by definition, is less aggressive and so really should not pose any issues in terms of flows, aesthetics, historical impact, because it has already been through it,” Holm added.

Holm said the former CVPS project included plans for two penstocks, while the new plan calls for one.

“Simple physics mandates there would obviously be less water flowing through the project site, and therefore more water flowing over the falls,” Holm said.

“We are hoping, and others at the state level are hoping, that this will be a fairly expeditious process, using this old data.”

Holm said the family has had to deviate from its most recent plan to have the project serve exclusively Middlebury College and some of the town.

“Counter-intuitively, that would make things more complicated, because we would have to be a utility,” Holm said. “Our elegantly simple plan backfired and legal counsel said, ‘The last thing you want to do is become a utility.’ So we basically have given up on that and gone back to our original plan of being a wholesale producer of electricity and selling via the (state’s electricity) grid.”

The Holms hope to see the project in place by 2010.

“We are making a lot of progress; we are doing everything we have been permitted to do,” Holm said.

The Holm family has been doing a lot of work on the foundation of their Main Street building, which includes a sluice through which a portion of the Otter Creek passes at the falls beneath the Battell Bridge.

“We have been replacing the underpinnings of the building, restoring the sluice gate and we are doing studies on the concrete in the flume, to make sure it is up to par,” Holm said. “So we are definitely making as much progress as we possibly can while we are waiting for everything. We definitely have an end in sight.”

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