Is there power in those old falls?
by Richard Creaser
— A century ago Barton was at the center of a vibrant manufacturing
trade. Those mills and factories drew their power from the outlet
from Crystal Lake. The village of Barton, spurred on by talks
with Community Hydro of Plainfield, is reexamining the waterway as a
potential source of power for the twenty-first century.
the resistance to wind power in this area, taking another look at hydro
seemed like a good idea,” said Dave Snedeker.
Snedeker is chairman of the Barton Village Trustees. He met with
Lori Barg, the consulting geologist who founded and runs Community
Hydro, to discuss the untapped potential of hydroelectric power in
Village Electric already operates a hydro facility along the Clyde
River in Charleston. In spite of pressure to sell the dam, both
to avoid the costly licensing process and improvements necessary to
keep it operational, the village retained the plant. That
decision has proven to be a wise one.
electric rates around the state, and the nation, have escalated, Barton
Village’s rates have managed to remain fairly level. Where the
village rates were once among the highest in the state, the rates of
other utilities are now catching up to and surpassing them.
projects could fuel a commercial renaissance. In addition to
reducing the state’s reliance on imported power and the fickleness of
fluctuating rates, in-state hydro could stimulate economic growth by
virtue of providing stable electric rates to consumers.
“Hydro isn’t new and sexy,” Ms. Barg said. “It’s old, it’s tried and tested.”
century ago much of the power used in the state was generated here via
hydropower. The imprint of those ancient factories, the concrete
skeletons of their dams remain still, scattered across the Vermont
landscape. Ms. Barg believes it is high time that Vermont turns
again to its rivers and streams to provide its own electricity.
“I think it was the lack of a grid that really sounded the death knell of hydro,” Ms. Barg said.
the factories that operated the dams closed, there was no effective
means to continue to harness and transmit the power these dams
generated to the people who needed it. As the years went on, the
dams fell into disuse or were decommissioned one after the other.
Vermont’s hydroelectric history was fading as quickly as the textile
mills and buggy whip factories that launched it into prominence.
Community Hydro, Ms. Barg is cataloging and assessing the potential
generation capacity of these old dams. Ms. Barg’s work is
particularly important in light of discrepancies surfacing in old
studies prepared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and
the federal Department of Energy. She is attempting to uncover
some of the redundancies in the two studies, and to identify the dams
using unique identifying numbers.
“The numbers they gave them don’t always agree,” she said.
two studies, conducted in 1988 and 1996 respectively, identified
between 351 and 421 megawatts of undeveloped hydropower in the
state. By comparison, the state’s peak load use measures about
1,100 megawatts and its base load, the average consumption, is
approximately 700 megawatts of electricity.
of the biggest hurdles to bringing these old dams back online lies in
the regulatory process. Not only is the process lengthy, it is
also quite costly. Those costs can greatly diminish an investor’s
or a municipality’s interest in resurrecting these dams.
really comes down to the bottom line,” said Mr. Snedeker. “We
need to see what it would cost to get something up and running at
Crystal Lake when we have a hydro plant that is only running at half
Barton trustees have wrestled with the question of whether or not to
bond to replace a second, non-functioning hydro turbine at the Clyde
River plant. A major concern is whether or not the village would
receive approval to run sufficient water through the dam to power a
think we need to find a different way to permit hydro power that is
still environmentally sound,” Ms. Barg said. “We have enough
studies to tell us how much water fish need to swim upstream. We
don’t need to do a new study every time this comes up.”
some respects municipalities have advantages that private investors do
not. A private enterprise needs to see relatively immediate
returns, something that is not always possible or plausible on a
micro-hydro project. A municipality, on the other hand, can take
advantage of extending the cost of a bond over ten to 20 years.
can take the long view and see this as an investment for the future,”
Ms. Barg said. “If you own the resource and maintain the
infrastructure, you have something that’s going to benefit you for
many, many years.”
state acknowledges the potential for, and limitations of, hydro
generation in the state in its policy statement posted on the
Environmental Protection Agency web site. The policy views the
greatest potential growth stemming from updating existing dams or
“repowering” old dams, rather than attempting to site new facilities.
the cost of both options is high compared to the price of competing
nonrenewable fuels,” the policy states. “Significant increases in
electric production from in-state hydro power are unlikely unless the
greater environmental and social costs of competing fuels are
environmental and social costs are increasingly evident in the
discussions over global warming, the price of oil, and the effects of
our current national energy policy. Hydroelectric power has never
been a more attractive option, Ms. Barg said.
there’s one thing Vermont has a lot of, it’s water and hills,” she
said. “It’s our resource, it’s our economy and our jobs. We
can make this work.”