Mini hydro project seeks to unlock potential of old dam
MANCHESTER - It's the energy source that's hiding in plain sight.
Right in the center of town, but tucked somewhat out of view, a water dam constructed more than 110 years ago to power a grist mill that used to occupy a site a stone's throw from Malfunction Junction may serve to show the potential of so-called "mini-hydro" to help supply the state's energy needs, said Jim Hand, a Dorset resident who is exploring the possibility of getting the dam back in the energy business.
"The idea is to get the thing operating and producing power," he said. "The real reason is to demonstrate the use of a renewable energy source that had been sitting dormant to show that this could be done."
Water power is abundant and unlike coal or oil-fired power generating plants contributes nothing in the way of carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere, believed to be a major factor in global warming. But getting an already-existing dam, even one that used to supply the town's first electrical needs in the 1890s, back online is no simple task, Hand said.
Permits for hydro projects - even small scale ones estimated to yield 10 to 20 kilowatt hours such as the dam next to the junction is reckoned to be capable of producing - have to obtain both state and federal permits before going operational. In addition to a water quality certificate from the state Agency of Natural Resources, a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a certificate of public good from the state Public Service Board are also required. The process can be lengthy and expensive, enough to call the economic viability of similar projects into question, Hand said.
"They (the state and federal permitting agencies) feel they may need years of analysis," he said. "We could expect to spend up to $200,000 over 2-10 years just to go through the process and still not be guaranteed a permit."
That's because the state needs to be mindful of protecting its waterways, not only for the sake of the fish habitat but also for reasons of water quality and ensuring riverbanks are not negatively affected, said Brian T. Fitzgerald, an ecologist with the Agency of Natural Resources in the environmental conservation department. It's complicated by the fact that no one person owns the entire length of a river, he said.
"The thing to keep in mind about hydro projects is that you're dealing with public trust resources - riverways are the wardens of the state," he said. "It's a bit different from siting a windmill on a mountaintop," he said.
However, the eventual price tag and amount of time needed for a state permit depends heavily on the particular circumstances of each individual project, and goes a long way towards determining what studies are needed to evaluate the impact on state waters, he said.
The dam provided the source of power for the first electricity ever used in Manchester, enough to power the lights in about 12 homes, according to Hand. The dam is owned by Walker Kimball, whose real estate agency occupied the building alongside the dam and above the old mill until he retired and closed down the business two months ago.
About 20 years ago, Kimball had a similar idea to re-start the dam as an energy supplier to handle their heating needs. Along with one of his sons, he brought in some newer generating equipment, but they never got around to finishing off the project, as the project expense of completing it mounted, Kimball said.
But Hand's interest has his blessing, he said.
"If you can get it going, fine," he said. "I'd be happy to have someone do something with it."
At one time Vermont satisfied the bulk of its energy needs through hydro power, and still produces about 700 megawatts through it, almost enough to satisfy the minimum base electrical needs of the state. But the majority of that is exported out of the state, said Lori Barg, a geologist and founder of Community Hydro, a private company that helps towns and individuals advance hydro power projects.
But no new hydro-based capacity has been added to Vermont's energy mix in more than 20 years, in large part due to the permitting hurdles such projects have to get over, she said.
Concerns about protecting fish in the streams where dams might be built or brought back into service shouldn't be insurmountable problems and could be funded by user fees, she said.
"We have a lot of experience with hydro," she said. "You're not talking about starting with some weird new technology no one has ever heard of. We have a lot of water and a lot of hills - hydro could be one of our best sources for power."
But that non-polluting power source will only remain a nice idea until the regulatory thicket is cleared out. Hydro is the only renewable power source that required a federal as well as state permits, although the feds will waive a lot of their concerns once a state permit is secured, she said.
The state General Assembly has passed legislation that includes language that calls on the governor's administration to produce a recommendation for a simple, predictable procedure for completing a water quality certification review of mini-hydro projects such as the Manchester dam. The bill is currently under consideration by the Senate.
On a stopover in Manchester last Friday, Gov. Jim Douglas said he supported looking at small hydro projects.
"I would like to see them go forward where they make sense and I hope if there are obstacles they'll contact the folks at the Public Service Board (the state board that issues the required certificates of public good) and see if they can get some help," he said.
If it ever does get operational, the dam wouldn't even generate enough power to light up Hand Motors, the auto sales and service business across the street of which Hand is a co-owner. But the point is to find ways of continuing to diversify the ways the state could increase its renewable energy capacity, Hand said. And projects involving existing dams don't call for massive alterations to the existing landscape - they are already there, Hand said.
"We're not changing anything," Hand said. "What's involved is a small pond in the middle of Manchester. It's original purpose was to power a grist mill. It doesn't have to be that complicated."
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