Reposted from the Burlington Free Press, Feb. 5, 2012
I Believe: Healthy rivers and hydropower can coexist
I believe that if we could have the economic vitality of the 19th century, with the smarts of the 21st century, then we could have vibrant, economically productive towns.
Every Vermont town had a vibrant local economy, whether it was potash, bobbins or fishing poles, starch or wool; sash and doors, Vermont towns produced it all. Every town had factories, every town had a vibrant economy.
Eating local, and having in-state renewable energy are not new ideas.
One of the favorite books on my shelf is Zadock Thompson’s civil, statistical and agricultural history of Vermont, written in the 19th century. This book tells us town by town, about the industries, farming and production in each and every town. It really is a page-turner.
For example, in 1840, 880 people in my town of Plainfield grew more than 36,000 bushels of wheat, barley, oats, rye, buckwheat, Indian corn and potatoes, and they harvested almost 3,000 tons of hay, 14,000 pounds of maple sugar and 11,000 pounds of wool. They raised more than 10,000 sheep, cattle, horses and pigs (Zadock did not count chickens).
In addition to farming and lumbering, there were three saw mills, two grist mills, one fulling mill and one clover mill. And people from the nearby towns did not have to travel to Plainfield, because East Montpelier, North Montpelier, Calais and Marshfield all have similar histories — as does the rest of Vermont.
Local food. Local energy. Energy was from the two H’s: horse power and hydro power. The power for the mills was from gravity and falling water — hydropower. And there is no shortage of hills and falling water in Vermont.
So, is there still more hydro potential in Vermont? The cherries have been picked, but there is still fruit left. We are rejuvenating the “local” movement, we are starting to grow more food again — and we can produce environmentally sound hydro again. I can point to studies from circa 1900, and again 100 years later, both of which identify more than 500 megawatts (500,000 kilowatts) of undeveloped hydro potential in Vermont.
So how do we learn from the lessons of the 19th century? We learn to live within our energy means — we learn what energy is. We don’t need more dams, that is for sure. Vermont has more than 1,200 dams (no one knows how many exactly), and most of them are not going anywhere. Dams were built for reasons, and the reasons have not gone away. Vermonters like our lakes, our water supplies, our flood control, our recreation and our fish and wildlife.
You don’t need a dam to make hydro. To make power, the most important thing other than water is a vertical difference in height (called head). In 2006, the Idaho National Laboratory rolled out a Web-based interactive map — the Virtual Hydropower Prospector, which identified more than 400 MW of environmentally sound, economically feasible hydro that could be developed in Vermont without building a single new dam, just using the natural topography (Vermont ain’t flat!) and half the water in that section of the river.
This is not new. There are dam-less hydro sites in Vermont that have operated for decades.
Vermont’s economic vitality was due to its hydropower. Hydro is well-proved technology. There is a site near me where there is a rebuilt 5,000 KW turbine — after 104 years. One of the benefits of that site is that the land around the reservoir has been protected for a century, and Vermonters have boated, gone swimming and fished on that site for a century.
In 2007, I did a retrospective study on undeveloped hydro in the state (available at the Vermont Renewable Energy Atlas), and identified more than 90 MW of hydro that can be developed at only 300 of the existing dams.
Hydro also is the cheapest power being produced in the state today. Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power both make their in-state hydro for less than 4 cents a kilowatt-hour — little comes close to that low price. And it keeps the dollars in-state, so that we can have healthy local economies growing our own food and energy.
Back at the turn of the 20th century, seemingly every Vermonter and their brother was making turbines. And if electric prices go sky high, that is going to happen again. We know the power of falling water, and we see it in our backyards. Self-cleaning intakes and power electronics reduce the labor associated with small sites, making them affordable to operate.
There have been legislative attempts to move hydro forward, but the pace remains glacial. In this time of belt-tightening, it will be easier for the regulators and the regulated to have clear guidance. Vermont should promote a simplified state and federal permitting process for local, small-scale hydroelectric projects. One good option is for our governor to take the same initiative as the governor of Colorado, and sign a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
We can have healthy rivers, no more dams, use the dams we do have, and make local power.Lori Barg is a geologist, builder, hydroelectric developer and berry grower in Plainfield. She likes to do anything outdoors that is self-propelled. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.