Middlebury hydro plan to advance

MIDDLEBURY — A family seeking to install a small-scale hydroelectric project at Middlebury’s Otter Creek falls has won permission to take advantage of a streamlined federal review of the plan and is looking for investors to help finance eventual construction.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last month agreed to use the “Traditional Licensing Process (TLP)” in its review of the Middlebury Electric hydro project. Town officials had opposed the use of a TLP review, urging FERC to instead use the more comprehensive “Integrated Licensing Process.”

But FERC sided with Middlebury Electric, formed by Anders Holm and his family, who own property next to the Otter Creek falls. Their proposal calls for installation of a water turbine that would harness electricity from the creek as it flows under a Holms-owned building that borders the falls’ south side. It is a project that could generate more than 1 megawatt of electricity — enough to power the downtown area.

“The FERC decision was obviously huge for Middlebury and the project,” Holm said on Monday. “Unfortunately, it took three months longer than it was supposed to.”

That delay — which Holm said was at least in part due to the town’s opposition to the TLP process — meant that Middlebury Electric could not take advantage of the Vermont’s Sustainably Priced Energy Development (SPEED) Program.

Created by the Legislature in 2005, the SPEED program provides a financial incentive for those seeking to set up renewable energy projects in the state of fewer than 2.2 megawatts.

But Holm noted the SPEED program has now reached its state-prescribed threshold of projects with a combined total of 50 megawatts. Carolyn Alderman, analyst for the SPEED Standard Offer program, said the Middlebury Electric project had been granted a contract but withdrew from the program last month. She said Middlebury Electric and other interested parties can still apply to the SPEED program in the event the Legislature elects to lift the 50-megawatt cap.

“Hopefully, that will be addressed during the next legislative session,” Alderman said.

Holm said the SPEED program could have helped float the hydro project to the tune of more than $18 million over the next 20 years; he would be open to pursuing the program again if legislators lift the 50-megawatt cap.

At this point, Holm said Middlebury Electric is looking for investors and will proceed with an application under the TLP process, which he said is due at the FERC offices within 60 days. He said the FERC review will include a local public hearing on the hydro proposal.

Middlebury officials served notice they will be among those delivering testimony for FERC to consider. Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger made that clear in an Oct. 19 letter to Ann F. Miles, director of FERC’s Division of Hydropower Licensing.

“Although we are disappointed with your decision (to approve the TLP review process), we want to assure you that the town of Middlebury will continue to be actively involved in the ongoing permitting process,” Finger wrote. “Our objectives are primarily to ensure that whatever project if finally developed does no harm environmentally, is aesthetically acceptable to the community, and is financially feasible and executed by a competent, experienced developer of similar projects.”

The town has thus far spent $42,000 in legal fees, largely with the Maine law firm of Pierce Atwood, in protecting the town’s interests in the hydro case, Finger confirmed.

Middlebury Electric and the selectboard engaged in confidential, mediated talks earlier this year to try and resolve such differences as water rights, aesthetics and potential compensation for the use of some municipal land for the project.

Those talks ended this past spring, but produced in May the framework of a potential contract between the two parties.

“We can’t sign the contract now,” Holm said, “but we will be ready to sign it if the financial solvency of the project is there. We are happy with the contract in general terms.”

Finger said the town is still interested in discussing the hydro plan with the Holms.

“We are willing to enter into productive discussions, if they can be had,” Finger said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.


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