By William Scully
I got interested in hydroelectric power in an instant on Dec. 26, 2008.
While driving and listening to a National Public Radio news piece regarding the skyrocketing price of oil, I had an epiphany. I live in a mill town in Vermont, and there are five dams within 1 mile of my home. I was deeply disturbed by the fact that we weren’t tapping the hydroelectric power potential of these dams. Opinions were abundant as to why, but there had been no new hydroelectric development in Vermont in 28 years, and I set out to change that.
I learned that there were about 1,000 unused dams in the state. I learned that more than 80% of Vermont’s energy was provided by foreign-owned companies. The more I dug, the more I knew I was right: We can develop some of these dams to produce renewable energy. What I didn’t expect was that the people across the table from me, the stewards of our waterways, were also right: There are unused dams that should be removed.
Hydroelectric power remains the most effective renewable resource Vermont can implement. We have a long history of hydropower dating back to the state’s early settlement – those old dams were built for a reason. Just as important, we own this energy resource and Vermont should be powered by Vermonters.
That said, I moved to Vermont 25 years ago from California for many reasons, and one of them is the quality of our waterways – a value I share with many. I feel that any energy development must be environmentally responsible, and that’s what we’ve done at Carbon Zero’s Vermont Tissue Hydroelectric Redevelopment on the Walloomsac River. The 360-kW hydro plant, an effort I started in 2009, was commissioned in September 2015 and was a policy-changing event for Vermont. It is unusual for a plant of this scale to have prompted a joint memorandum from the state’s delegation and to make national news, but the unconventionality of the design resulted in greater lifetime production and improved water quality.
Of these 1,000 or so dams in the state of Vermont, it’s difficult to determine which have value. Dams have a variety of uses, including water supply, water treatment, flood control and of course power generation. As a hydropower project developer, I tend to use a simple question for determining value: Can the site be developed in compliance with our water quality standards and remain economically viable?
Hydroelectric power is the most cost-effective of the renewable resources to develop, but we also must recognize that we are holding Vermont developers to a high standard because their projects affect resources that belong to all of us – and they should be supported in their efforts.
With this, hydro project developers should support removal of the defunct albatrosses we have been clinging to. Dams that support a strong financial model can fund their own maintenance, improve degraded aquatic habitat, develop recreational facilities, create jobs and foster our in-state wealth. Dams may be good candidates for removal if they don’t serve a useful purpose but instead increase public safety risk, reduce our resilience to future floods or have ongoing negative impacts on the environment.
I supported the removal of Henry Bridge Dam in North Bennington in 2013. The dam had no economic potential to produce electric power, and over many years there were several near drownings and one reported fatality at this dam. Responsible management of Vermont’s dams must include an evaluation of the removal benefits of defunct sites with no practical value. While we may not all agree on which dams should stay, it is a conversation we must have.
We simply cannot live without healthy waterways, one of our most precious natural resources. So, in the end, my vision for Vermont’s dams is to develop 100% of those that make sense from an economic perspective and that maintain a high level of water quality, and examine the rest objectively to determine which should be removed.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on the VTDigger.org website, which publishes news about the state of Vermont, and has been republished here with the author’s permission.
William Scully is owner and operating manager of Carbon Zero LLC, Hoosic River Hydro LLC and Canton Hydro LLC.
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