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Microhydro: a reemerging energy source?

By Rachel Goff

Back in the 1980s, Warren resident Carl Bates installed a pipe that ran downhill about 300 feet from a stream in his backyard. The pipe was two inches in diameter but narrowed at one end, shooting out a high-powered jet that spun a waterwheel to generate electricity. It was only enough to run "a few lights and a radio," Bates said, but at the time his house was "way off the grid," and he was experimenting with alternative energy sources.

Now, 30 years later and equipped with a greater understanding of the causes of climate change, many Valley residents are looking to alternative energy sources to decrease their reliance on fossil fuels. Within the past few years, Warren and Waitsfield have held several forums on the viability of wind and solar power in the area, but few have discussed hydropower—or "microhydro"—alternatives like Bates'.

Microhydro is defined as a hydropower system with a capacity of 100kW or less and, perhaps, the most recent example of microhydro in The Valley is the timber crib dam in Warren Village.

In the mid-1980s, Warren resident Mac Rood converted the existing 200-year-old dam to a 75kW microhydro system that generated 100kWh of electricity a year—enough to power about 10 or 15 houses, he explained.

At first, Rood sold the electricity to Green Mountain Power for 78 cents per kWh. The rate was set by the state, and "it seemed they were really promoting [microhydro systems]," Rood said, but then the rate "just kept dropping to the point where it didn't make sense to run the dam anymore." Rood stopped running the dam after only four years, as the system became no longer financially viable.

Part of the problem with the village's timber crib dam, Rood explained, was its size. Located on the Mad River, "it had many of the disadvantages of a larger system," including requiring extra equipment, he said, without the increased energy output of larger systems. "It was just hard to run," he said.

From his experience, Rood wonders whether smaller microhydro systems could be more successful in The Valley, and multiple in-state alternative energy companies are urging residents to explore the energy output potential of their backyard brooks and streams.

According to Plainfield-based company Community Hydro, the energy output of a microhydro system is determined by the flow of the water and its "head," or the change in elevation from when water enters the system and when it exits it.

Unlike Warren Village's timber crib dam, most residential-scale microhydro systems rely on the diversion of water from a stream via a pipeline that powers a turbine, similar to Bates' system. Because pipeline systems divert water without changing the overall dynamic of a river or stream like a dam would, they are more often able to meet environmental low-impact standards, including that the river flows healthy for fish, and water quality and the watershed are not affected by the system.

Still, anyone looking into developing a microhydro system in The Valley needs to first get the go-ahead from several local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Public Service Board.

In other words, "There's a lot of permitting hoops that you have to jump through," Warren resident Dan Eckstein said. Eckstein serves as the curriculum director at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, which in the early 2000s offered a class teaching students how to install microhydro systems. The school has since stopped offering the class "because, logistically and legally, [microhydro] is very challenging to implement," Eckstein said, "and we didn't want to offer the class and encourage people to do something illegally."

That being said, Eckstein supports the development of microhydro systems, and in The Valley "there are absolutely sites that could work," he said, and, according to Warren Energy Committee co-chair Eric Brattstrom, it seems some of the logistic and legal challenges surrounding the alternative energy source are changing.

Last month, Brattstrom attended a meeting in Montpelier about low-impact hydro screening hosted by the ANR, the Vermont Public Service Board and the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

According to Brattstrom, the purpose of the meeting was "to give people that had some interest in hydropower a set of standards for projects that—if they met—they would have no problem getting through the ANR," Brattstrom explained.

Brattstrom attended the meeting on behalf of a group of residents trying to restore the village's timber crib dam, which in the wake of its electricity-generating days has started to deteriorate.

For several years now, the Warren Village Dam Preservation Trust had been trying to get a permit to repair the structure, but they were told last summer "on no uncertain terms" by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) that they wouldn't receive it, Rood said.

But now, according to Brattstrom, the village's timber crib dam meets all of the ANR's low-impact standards, and a group of residents led by Warren resident Dave Sellers will move forward by submitting documentation proving the village's timber crib dam is the type of hydropower project the ANR says they'll support.

Originally, the Warren Village Dam Preservation Trust's efforts to restore the dam were based largely on its aesthetics, as the structure has become an almost iconic image of downtown, Brattstrom explained, "But then it evolved into why can't we make it work because it did work at one time," he said.

Indeed, the current Warren Town Plan, which was adopted in 2010, speaks to the historic importance of electricity-generating dams like the village's timber crib to The Valley as well as to the future of water-powered projects when it says that "technological developments in small and microhydro may present opportunities for new hydropower generation in Warren without the impact of larger-scale projects." Likewise, the Waitsfield Town Plan, which was adopted in 2012, states: "There might be the potential for small-scale microhydro development that supplies individual users."

Moving forward, as the Warren Energy Committee works with the Warren Planning Commission to rewrite the Warren Town Plan as required every five years, "We're exploring all of the energy options," energy committee co-chair Dotty Kyle said. "We will definitely be looking at where is there potential for microhydro," she said, "but there is so much to learn."

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