Some advocates would like to see Vermont towns go back to the renewable energy future by relying more heavily on hydroelectricity. They say a bill to simplify the permit process that’s pending on Governor Peter Shumlin’s desk would make that more likely, but skeptics say hydro is still too inefficient and expensive.
New hydroelectric projects are hardly ever proposed today, but as hydro supporters like Lori Barg point out, Vermont has a long history of relying on rivers to generate electricity.
"Vermont was founded on hydro. It was born on hydro power," Barg says. "Vermont is unique in having well over a dozen municipal utilities, most of which started because they had hydro electric projects."
Now, developers are hoping to convince towns to host new projects, which, Barg says, won’t necessarily involve damming waters. She says there are hundreds of potential projects that wouldn’t involve a dam at all, but would use natural topography. Still, Barg says developers are struggling to navigate the state and federal regulations.
"You can spend literally hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars going through the permitting process," says Barg, who runs a small business called Community Hydro. Last month in Townshend, after five years in the licensing process, she got the first river hydro project to be approved in Vermont in the past 20 years. Townshend will receive a payment based on each kilowatt hour that is produced.
"In-state hydro is the most affordable power that we have. The big utilities – CVPS and Green Mountain Power – are producing some of their in-state hydro power for 3 or 4 cents per kilowatt hour. Nothing even comes close to that low price," Barg says.
The Legislature is willing to give in-state hydro a shot, approving a bill to streamline the permitting process for small scale projects. The measure would require the Commissioner of Public Service to enter into an agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve small hydro projects.
David Deen is chair of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee in the Vermont House. His support for the hydro bill is tepid at best. "But I did vote for it," Deen says. "I wanted the proponents to have an opportunity to prove their case."
Even if the permitting process is simplified in Vermont, Deen says communities looking to count on hydro projects to offset energy costs will still face their biggest barrier: being able to make money.
"We have a glut of power, and the amount of money that generators can make probably won’t even pay to keep the dam up and keep it healthy," Deen says.
A number of towns, including Glover and Fair Haven, are currently exploring whether they want to support hydroelectric projects, as hydro advocates argue the state’s energy policy, with its emphasis on industrial wind turbines, won’t reduce Vermont’s use of fossil fuels.
Governor Peter Shumlin is expected to sign the hydro bill when it arrives on his desk in the coming weeks.