Lawmakers seek easier approval process for hydro projects

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(Host) Lawmakers from three parties want to make it easier for small hydroelectric projects to win state approval.

Backers say legislation is needed to reduce an expensive state permit process.

But a state official says the bill may not be needed.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) With climate change on the legislature’s priority list, lawmakers are looking for ways to promote Vermont based renewable energy.

East Montpelier Democrat Tony Klein has introduced a bill designed to ease the regulatory burden for energy developers. Much of the bill deals with hydro power.

(Klein) “I see this as one of a number of bills going forward on all levels to quickly get in action as many of these renewable projects as we possibly can. The clock is ticking.”

(Dillon) The momentum behind the legislation comes from Vermont’s hydropower past, when many towns had a saw mill or grist mill powered by running water.

Lori Barg is president of Community Hydro in Plainfield. Barg says she got inspired to look at old hydropower sites when she was on the Plainfield Selectboard. She wondered if the town could generate power from an old dam in the village.

(Barg) “I thought, okay, if we’re going to keep this dam, how do we turn it into an asset instead of a liability? And that’s how community Hydro got born.”

(Dillon) Barg says there are numerous sites including 107 dams owned by towns that could yield at least 174 megawatts of power.

But she says government regulation is a significant hurdle.

(Barg) “It typically takes $250 to $500,000 to permit a small hydro facility in the state of Vermont. Typically takes sometimes as little as three years, sometimes more than that.”

(Dillon) The legislation directs the Agency of Natural resources to streamline its permit review for small hydro projects that don’t involve new dams.

By law, hydro facilities are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But the state has a role to play since the Agency of Natural Resources is delegated under the U.S. Clean Water Act to issue a water quality certificate as part of the federal licensing process.

The bill says the state agency must revise its procedures for establishing the minimum stream flow required for these projects.

But John Sayles, the deputy secretary at the agency, questions whether the bill is needed. He says no one has applied for a new hydro facility in 15 years.

(Sayles) “I think it’s a perceived problem. And to some extent, it feels like a solution looking for a problem because we haven’t had an application in so long.”

(Dillon) A leading environmental group has also raised concerns. Kim Greenwood is staff scientist with the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

(Greenwood) “Let’s have the discussion, we’re all ears. But as it stands there are some big red flags in this bill.”

(Dillon) Greenwood says she’s worried about several provisions, including a section that says hydro-developers would not be required to pay for improvements to help fish move around the dams.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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