Friday, December 08, 2006

Is Small Hydro Making a Comeback?

The Burlington Free Press has in interesting story today on the rebirth of small hydro projects in Vermont.

The article focuses on plans to restore an abandoned hydroelectric plant on the Otter Creek River, in Middlebury Vermont. The Holm family, the current owners of the dam, see the dam as an excellent source of clean renewable energy; one that could help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. They hope to bring the power station back on-line in a manner that complements the existing scenic qualities of the dam. Peter Holm believes the dam could produce enough electricity for approximately 1,000 homes without diverting water from the creek's scenic falls.

The Otter Creek project is just one example of a growing movement in Vermont to bring small dams back into the energy portfolio. According to the Free Press article, Vermont has over 1,000 small dams, but only 95 of them are currently producing power. While not all of these other dams provide viable alternatives for power production, previous studies indicate that Vermont could generate between 175-440 megawatts of power from refurbished dams. That not an insignificant amount considering the State's recent peak power demands. Vermont's Electric Plan indicates that the demand for electricity in 2004 was under 1,100 MW.

The biggest stumbling block: the cost of environmental studies and permitting. Even small dams require state and federal review, and the cost of the permitting process can be prohibitive. The Holms estimate that they may ultimately spend $500,000 on the permitting process before they know whether or not they will be able to proceed with the project. That's a significant financial barrier for smaller developers.

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