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Proposed water turbine plan flowing steady

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — The developers of a proposed water turbine at the Otter Creek Falls will soon seek permission from the Vermont Public Service Board and the town of Middlebury to put their plans into motion.

Anders Holm, whose family owns property adjacent to the falls where the turbine would be sited, explained on Thursday that high water levels in the Otter Creek this past spring and summer prevented consultants from completing a needed feasibility study for the project. But those waters have receded in recent weeks to a point where officials from the New Hampshire-based firm of Gomez and Sullivan were able to complete their review of the project site.

“They were able to get all the information they needed for the feasibility study,” said Holm, a Middlebury physician. “We hope to have (the study) within a week.”

That study, according to Holm, will provide more information on how much the turbine project would cost and how much electricity it could generate.

At this point, Holm is anticipating a small-scale hydroelectric project that could cost as much as $1.5 million, while generating anywhere from “a couple hundred kilowatts” to more than two megawatts — enough clean, renewable energy to power several hundred homes.

Not surprisingly, the size of the turbine project will determine the amount of electricity it will be able to generate. With that in mind, Holm said he will present three options to the state and town of Middlebury:

• A small turbine tucked away in the sluice that currently channels water underneath the Holm building that borders the Battell Bridge on the south side of the falls. That sluice will soon be sandbagged to prevent further erosion, Holm added.

• A larger turbine placed under the falls.

• A project featuring a rubber “bladder” that would collect Otter Creek water and funnel it into a turbine beneath the falls.

The electricity would be processed in a powerhouse erected near the base of the footbridge that links Frog Hollow with the Marble Works business complex across the Otter Creek.

“We will hand all three proposals to the town and ask which one they want — if any,” Holm said. That hand-off is likely to occur before the end of October, according to Holm.

In the meantime, Holm will be looking at financing options for the project. Those options include a “renewable energy cooperative,” through which people would invest in the water turbine and receive their payback as the electricity is sold; and grants available through the Vermont Department of Public Services’ (DPS) “micro-hydro” program.

Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington confirmed that Holm’s project is currently eligible for up to $10,000 in DPS grants for further planning for the water turbine project. Additional grant money will be available if the project proceeds, Dunnington noted.

Holm sees the availability of grant money as evidence that the state is getting serious about developing hydropower as an alternative energy source.

“(The Vermont Public Service Board) is interested in reinstituting micro-hydro in the state,” Holm said. “They’ve found a lot of potential around the state for similar (water turbine) projects to help deal with the energy crisis that is looming.”

Holm hopes the Vermont Legislature demonstrates a similar interest. Specifically, he wants lawmakers to pass legislation in 2007 that would exclude the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from participating in the permit reviews for the smallest hydroelectric power proposals. Holm noted Alaska recently developed its own Small Hydroelectric Licensing Program, which excludes FERC permitting oversight of Alaskan micro-hydro projects that generate less than five megawatts.

That’s not the case in other states, where FERC must weigh in on virtually all hydroelectricity proposals, a fact that can lead to permit reviews lasting upwards of five years, according to Holm.

“We need to try to eliminate, as Alaska has, the federal licensing of these sites,” Holm said.

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