Why aren’t there more hydro projects?

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle, May 30, 2012

This is part one of a series of articles about hydropower.

MONTPELIER — The Legislature gave a nudge this session to a renewable source of energy that roughly 70 years ago dominated Vermont’s rivers and ponds. As recently as 1940, hydropower supplied the state with 90 percent of its power needs.

But today hydropower is seldom mentioned in the push to acquire 20 percent of Vermont’s energy needs from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2017.

“Hydropower is the forgotten stepchild of the renewable energy movement,” says Lori Barg, who owns a business in Plainfield that designs and installs small hydro systems for towns and farms, and who gave testimony for the hydro bill that was signed into law recently by Governor Peter Shumlin.

One of the co-sponsors of the bill was Northeast Kingdom Senator Vince Illuzzi of Derby. Nearly ten years ago Senator Illuzzi spearheaded a failed attempt to get the state to buy hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut River.

He has been pushing hydro ever since and, except for this year, striking out.

“It’s been a constant fight with ANR and water quality people,” he says. And in the Legislature there has been no middle ground with hydro projects, he adds: “Either you authorize them or you don’t.”

The bill that made it into law this year, S.148, intends to expedite the permit process for small and micro hydro developers. A small hydro is defined as a project that generates up to five megawatts (MW) of power, while a micro is one that is 100 kilowatts (KW) or less. There are 1,000 KW in a MW.

Estimates of Vermont potential for hydro projects are all over the map. According to the bill’s findings, they range from 25 MW to 434 MW. In a 2008 study, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) estimated there were 25 MW at 44 sites; whereas a year earlier the Department of Public Service (DPS) estimated there were 90 MW developable at 300 of the 1,200 existing dams, according to the bill’s findings.

In testimony on the bill before the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, Ms. Barg testified that Vermont has 400 MW of potential hydropower without building a single new dam.

So, the elephant in the room or the whale in the river is the question: Why isn’t hydro playing a larger, more important role in the renewable energy mix?

The reason, say a variety of sources, is the cost of permitting — a process that involves both state and federal agencies.

“Most hydroelectric projects require approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The length and cost of the process of obtaining a FERC approval do not vary significantly with the capacity of the hydroelectric project,” says the bill’s findings. “However, the ability of a hydroelectric project to absorb this cost decreases as the capacity of the project grows smaller.”

To ease the permitting cost, S.148 authorizes the DPS commissioner to enter into an agreement, or what is known as a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) with FERC that would enable Vermont agencies to prescreen proposed hydroelectric projects in the state.

The MOU would be comparable to one recently signed between Colorado and FERC “to streamline and simplify the authorization of small-scale hydropower projects.” But whereas the Colorado MOU focused mainly on agricultural irrigation canals, Vermont’s will deal with small dams and conduits.

The state must initiate negotiations with FERC by July 15, and recently the DPS assigned a staff person to the project, according to Andy Perchlik, who is the department’s director of Clean Energy Development Fund.

It may be too early to estimate how much money the new law will save those who develop small hydro projects, says Mr. Perchlik. The bill says the state will review the MOU once five projects have been permitted and are up and running.

For its part, says Mr. Perchlik, the state is expected to do “more hand holding” with developers and coordinate permit work among agencies. The department and ANR will put together a list of criteria that a project will have to meet and, once all the agencies have signed off, he adds, FERC will be able to move ahead.

Though some may see the legislation as a step forward, no one is saying it will stimulate hydro development or increase applications for small or micro hydro projects.

Since S.148 went into effect the phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook at the Department of Environmental Conservation, says Brian Fitzgerald, the department’s Streamflow Protection Coordinator.

“Realistically, there aren’t that many good projects out there,” he says.

If the MOU succeeds, Mr. Fitzgerald says the state will be able to offer “a new service” to small hydro projects. He says that by pre-screening environment issues, the state will be able to speed up the FERC review.

Still, he adds, when licensing a hydro project, the state is “allocating a public resource.” And that requires a permitting process “to be thorough and thoughtful.”

Mr. Fitzgerald says operating costs and the need to maintain minimum stream flows are the biggest obstacle for hydro developers. And while legislation to allow hydro owners to sell or net meter power back to utilities has improved the economic picture, he expects the new law will only help a few small hydro developers.

A 5 MW hydro is “a big project for Vermont,” he says.

Hydro projects are licensed for 30 years and, according to Mr. Fitzgerald, between three and five have been certified in the state during the last couple of years. But some say that the permitting process in Vermont takes so long that would-be developers get discouraged.

There are no tax credits but the state does offer grants for micro projects. Mr. Perchlik says the grants only kick in when the permits are nearly in hand.

“You need to prove you’ve got the permit,” he says.

When it comes to hydros, he adds, applications for financial aid are rare.

As the woman who founded the Plainfield business, Community Hydro, Ms. Barg believes projects should be rated initially by the impact they will have on the environment. That would enable those projects with low impact to clear the permit hurdle quicker.

She also believes there should be something like the IRS 1040 EZ form for hydro projects, which she says would make life easier for both the regulated and regulators. In her ideal list, developers would be required to go through a standard form and check off the statements that characterize their projects.

For example:

• “Utilizes for electric power generation only the water power potential of an existing dam”; or

• “Utilizes only a dam at which there is no significant existing upstream or downstream passage of fish.”

In testimony before the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, she characterized the federal licensing process as onerous and expensive, regardless of size.

Still, she notes, that the MOU signed between Colorado and FERC has expedited the permit process in the Rocky Mountain state by licensing ten projects in a year and a half.

Big hydro projects like the one at James Bay in Quebec may have given hydro an indelible black eye. Senator Illuzzi says it alienated the public opinion by displacing native people and flooding thousands of acres of land. But local hydros, he argues, are viewed more benignly.

Still, when it comes to permitting, he says developers are caught between a “chicken-egg type of thing” as to who comes first, the state or FERC?

“It’s a colossal circuit that advances nothing,” he says.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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Hi tech ideas from a low-tech couple

Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser
copyright September 27, 2006
WHEELOCK — Energy researchers are busy in unlikely looking houses along many of the Northeast Kingdom’s back roads. Most favor low-tech solutions to fueling cars, heating homes or generating electricity.
Not so Phillip and Leigh Hurley. From their South Wheelock home they work to put the latest hydrogen fuel cell technology in the hands of average people.
Their business, Good Ideas Creative Services, publishes electronic books under the Wheelock Mountain Publications imprint. Five of them, written by Mr. Hurley, instruct the home experimenter on topics ranging from building your own solar panel to constructing a solar hydrogen fuel cell system.
“If we can do it, anyone can do it,” Mr. Hurley said during a conversation Saturday afternoon. Certainly there is nothing about his or Ms. Hurley’s background that would suggest they might be energy gurus.
He has a bachelor’s degree in human services, she majored in music. They both have masters degrees in theology.
While he lacks formal training, Mr. Hurley said he has “years of experience with avocational electrical experimentation.”
If he had guidance at an early age, he said, he might have pursued a more traditional path in the field of science. As it is, Mr. Hurley said, his work has interested many people who can boast the formal credentials he lacks.
While working on building hydrogen fuel cells, Mr. Hurley said, he needed to find an economical way to create a platinum-coated membrane. He hit on the idea of copying the process photographers use to make paper sensitive to light. Mr. Hurley said he was surprised when scientists termed his idea a stroke of genius.
“I’m not a genius,” he said.
The Hurleys’ research is directed at producing electronic books to help others pursue their backyard or basement research. They have discovered, though, that universities and schools find their books helpful as textbooks.
Mr. Hurley said that some scientists working for large laboratories in the field of fuel cell technology can be so focused on their small portion of the project that they don’t have a clear picture of the way the entire system works. He said he has received calls from such researchers thanking him for his work.
Mr. Hurley is the team’s writer, Ms. Hurley creates the e-books, that are their stock in trade. E-books are electronic books designed to be read on a computer screen.
The couple’s distribution of tasks seems quite flexible. Both are fully conversant with the science and the mechanics of the business. The only place where a firm line exists is customer service. Ms. Hurley handles that.
“He is of the Basil Fawlty school of customer service,” she said of Mr. Hurley.
A person seeking one of the couple’s books goes online to their web site, www.goodideacreative.com, where she can order and pay for it. The customer then downloads her copy.
“It’s instant gratification,” Mr. Hurley said.
Ms. Hurley said when the couple first started publishing most people didn’t understand the idea of e-books. “People would call up and ask for a copy of the actual book, and we would explain this is the book,” she said.
Mr. Hurley said young people are, in general, more comfortable than older people with reading books on a computer screen. He said the style of publishing has advantages both for the reader and the publisher.
The buyer, Mr. Hurley said, will find far more color photographic illustrations than could be economically included in a printed book. He estimated that an equivalent traditional book would have to be priced at $160. Mr. Hurley’s books cost between $8 and $17 to download.
Mr. Hurley said a person living in Botswana, in Africa, would once have had limited access to the kind of information he is offering. Even if a person could afford the book, he would have to order it and wait weeks for delivery.
Ms. Hurley said the couple had heard from a person in Brazil who built a business using information from their book on building solar panels.
The couple’s business benefits from not having to risk more than time and energy in publishing their books. They have no inventory, they depend on few suppliers other than the company that hosts their web site.
Their current business is not their first joint enterprise. For a while they sold and installed solar electric systems.
They also put on fireworks displays and made supplies for pyrotechnic shows.
“We put on the Burlington fireworks show for two years,” Mr. Hurley said. “From where I ran the controls I couldn’t see the fireworks, but I could hear people on boats oohing and aahing. I used their responses to time the show.”
The Hurleys also made the very pure type of charcoal used by fireworks makers. “We figured out a process that used the gases that came off the wood to further purify the charcoal,” Mr. Hurley said. “When we started it up it sounded like a jet engine.”
He said most fireworks makers want willow charcoal, but Mr. Hurley said poplar charcoal has superior qualities.
The couple got out of the charcoal business because it was too dangerous, he said. Even though they ground the material outdoors, the cloud of charcoal dust produced by the process was potentially highly explosive.
“We still get calls for the charcoal,” Ms. Hurley said.
The couple created Good Ideas Creative Services to offer design services to corporations. When the Internet bubble burst, their main client went with it. They suffered as well.
When they were considering what to do next, Ms. Hurley suggested they try to make an electronic book out of a short book he wrote to teach people how to set up the solar panels they once sold.
Mr. Hurley said he was dubious about the project, but Ms. Hurley persuaded him to try. She used the experience she gained from the design service to put the book together and design a web site. The response wasn’t enough to support the couple, but enough to permit the site to pay for itself.
Mr. and Ms. Hurley went on to study and write about hydrogen fuel cells. The cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen. The only byproduct besides the energy is a small amount of water and water vapor.
While an individual fuel cell produces only a small amount of energy, the cells can be stacked in a manner that boosts the flow of current.
The Hurleys’ books are designed to teach people to construct experimental systems with simple tools and techniques. Mr. Hurley said he looks hard for useful techniques.
One portion of their process is based on Ben Franklin’s method of making silhouettes, he said. To make their membranes, the pair had to find a substitute for the huge presses used by manufacturers.
“We came up with taking two brass plates held together with c-clamps,” Ms. Hurley said. “We heated them in the oven.”
A supplier catering to amateur experimenters now offers a kit based on their method, Mr. Hurley said.
One of the problems of fuel cell technology is getting pure hydrogen. Using electricity off the grid to separate water into its constituent parts serves no purpose, as a great deal of energy is lost in the process.
The Hurleys came up with the idea of using the sun to power the reaction. Mr. Hurley said one drawback of solar power is storage. Batteries must be continually charged and discharged. A battery charged in the summer will no longer have a charge when winter rolls around, he said.
Hydrogen, on the other hand, can be stored in pressurized tanks or in metallic compounds called hydrides. This hydrogen can be run through fuel cells whenever electricity is needed to recharge a system’s batteries.
Mr. Hurley said that on a bright summer day, solar panels can recharge batteries in a matter of a few hours. The rest of the day’s electricity can be used to create hydrogen.
Hydrogen is not something to be trifled with. One of Mr. Hurley’s books says it contains more energy than any other fuel known. If enough hydrogen and oxygen come together a small spark is enough to set off a large explosion.
For this reason the couple’s books are larded with safety instructions. Their designs also call for numerous features intended to minimize the inherent dangers of experimental systems.
Mr. Hurley doesn’t necessarily see his solar system as a way to get off the grid completely. Rather he said, people can “use it in an intelligent way to add to the green.”
He is not a fan of net metering, selling home-generated power back to the electric grid. Mr. Hurley said it is very difficult for a home system to create enough electricity to provide for one’s own needs and extra to sell.
The Hurleys’ home has two separate sets of wiring, one for commercial power, one for home-generated electricity. They also have two solar systems, one connected to directly to the power system, the other specially designed for hydrogen production.
Mr. Hurley calls his solar array “an electronic Stonehenge.” That idea, he said, is his philosophy of life.
Now that the couple has five books out on hydrogen production and solar power, Mr. Hurley thinks he might turn his attention to nanotechnology. He’s thinking of trying to build a microscope able to examine atomic structure.
As Ms. Hurley said, “We’re both easily amused.”
Mr. Hurley proved the point by telling of the time the two built a million-volt Tesla coil in their dorm room in divinity school. The device is a spark generating device familiar to anyone who ever has seen a mad scientist’s laboratory in a horror movie.
“When we built it we didn’t know how far the sparks would fly,” he said, “so we were hiding behind the bed.”

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Stand Against the Wind tells wind protesters’ stories

Stand Against the Wind:  Civil Disobedience in the Green Mountain State by Chris Braithwaite, Chronicle Inc., Barton, Vermont.  2012, 110 pages, softcover, $19.95.

Reviewed by Julia Shipley

copyright the chronicle May 23, 2012

No matter where you stand on the issue of installing 21 commercial wind turbines atop the Lowell mountains in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, whether you bristle and grieve or feel triumphant or resigned, whether you live here, in Orleans County, or in Atlanta, Georgia, whether you have been doggedly following news of the mountain occupancy or whether you feel exhausted at the very mention of the word “issue,”— whomever you are, you might find an endangered pleasure in this new book, Stand Against the Wind by the Chronicle’s co-founder and publisher, Chris Braithwaite. Those pleasures include both a textbook example of old school, shoe leather journalism built of substantiated assertions and meticulous reporting and the smithing of that information into about 2,000 utterly gorgeous sentences. One right after the other, his narrative travels in boxcars of strong, clear prose driving each of the book’s 27 chapters, and making a collective portrait of civil disobedience committed by six individuals.

The book begins with a symbolic and actual dividing line on top of Lowell Mountain.  As Braithwaite analyzes what the actual plastic tape-line divides, his litany of things divided, and the disparities presented, culminate in this lovely sentence:  The bright orange tape is a line “between a place that is so high, so cussedly strewn with deadfalls and moose shit that nobody goes there except to hunt and hike, each winter for many years to enjoy the near-wilderness experience of camping in the snow; and a mountain so convenient that a guy can drive his pickup to the top just to check the oil on a multimillion dollar machine.”

This first editorial chapter (originally published in the Chronicle) invites us to “risk feeling that you are being torn in two…up where the blasting will soon begin.”

For those of us who did not accept that invitation, the Chronicle has consistently covered the issue for months, and even years.

Although the book encompasses some key events leading up to the commencement of Green Mountain Power’s project to install industrial wind towers on one of Vermont’s northernmost ridgelines, what Braithwaite calls “a wonderful sort of nowhere, ” the book takes for its subject the actions of some concerned citizens to stop it from happening. Like a club sandwich, the book is not just lettuce and cheese, the names and the dates, the he said, and she said. There are other layers interspersed, and the meat of this feast is really found in the in-depth profiles of a half dozen protestors, whom we meet one at a time, the six people most consistently involved with using “direct action.”

“Who cares?” and “Why do they care?” But more importantly: “How do they care?” — this exploration of what care-in-action looks like, of how to gracefully express distress is certainly pertinent to everyone. For even industrial wind tower proponents surely have, at one time in their life, experienced a feeling of powerlessness against a larger force usurping and/or annihilating, something they love.

Stand Against the Wind introduces us to these complicated, intelligent, thoughtful, people, who resist the paralysis of despair and flex that constitutional right we’ve all been guaranteed: the right to express our dissent.

As we learn in the fourth chapter, this expression is first modeled by Anne Morse, who explains to Braithwaite, “The point isn’t getting arrested. The point is the direct action that leads to the arrest. I think that it highlights the problem… people coming together collectively to highlight something that’s happening that’s wrong.”

Subsequent chapters feature profiles on Dr. Ron Holland, Eric Wallace-Senft, David Rodgers, Suzanna Jones, and Ryan Gillard. These interviews feel intimate, as Braithwaite allows each person to articulate the life circumstances and experiences that informed their actions on the Lowell Mountains. Their testimony is so unadulterated, it’s as if we’ve been given access to the inner thoughts, to their minds shifting, reorganizing, each building to his or her own truth. Whereas David Rodgers comes to his decision to protest thorough an increasing urgency realized in an intuitive way, confessing “It’s not something I did methodically, it was more a sense that I need to take a stand,” for Dr. Ron Holland the route to civil disobedience was incredibly logical. His focus was the policy debate. “It’s my sense if this could be put out in a quantitative kind of way — which it can, and it hasn’t been — it would be fully obvious. ”
Although a full disclosure of the links and liaisons I have to the people within this book would supplant the space needed for this review, one disclosure seems too relevant to omit:  On November 2, 2009, almost three full years before the first dynamite charges were detonated, I sent an e-mail to Mr. Braithwaite (who, by dint of having published the Chronicle for the past 38 years is the dean of my de facto journalism school — meaning: I study his work intensely).  In the e-mail I asked, “How do you train in objectivity? You must have an opinion on some of the things you report because: these things will affect you. The Wind Towers? If you’re feeling strongly do you suppress your opinion when writing the article but blurt it out in a once in a blue moon editorial?

Mr. Braithwaite replied tersely (but gamely) the next day with, “Proposed experiment: Read the page 1 story about Lowell wind [Wind friends, foes focus on Lowell Mt. by Chris Braithwaite November 4, 2009], then decide whether the Chronicle favors or opposes wind power in general. Then read the editorial. Did you get it right?”

I deduced, by analyzing every word, examining ratios of which perspectives got more column inches and observing that wind tower proponents got to have the last word, that probably: “Braithwaite wants big wind.” (Obviously, I won’t be graduating from my self- invented J-school at the top of my class.)

Braithwaite further explained, “the reporter’s job is to understand the interests involved and lay them out coherently, like a good sports writer advancing a world series game. You can’t do that well if you let your misguided affection for the Yankees color your assessment… so you learn not to.”

This occupational hazard is tackled again in his book. Much as the footing up to the mountaintops is moose-shit slick and tricky, so Braithwaite also admits to coming “dangerously close” to slipping over the thin partition and being a protestor. Though he accepts the cup of coffee brewed by some of the mountain occupiers, a steaming cup which he describes as a “shocking luxury” on that chilly morning, he refrains from civil disobedience, realizing he cannot report on the protest if he joins them by bending over to make a cairn of the blasted rubble or carry a handful of soil to a freshly planted sapling. And though he jokes in another chapter about the sacrifices his job demands (in particular, how a bout of extended reporting kept him from fully participating in a deer camp getaway), I feel it necessary to point out that for the readers, having a newspaper like the Chronicle at all is a shocking luxury. And that Braithwaite’s actual sacrifice to forgo his expression of civil disobedience has yielded us his newspaper’s ongoing coverage of the commercial wind project, a true boon being as we live too far beyond the radar to merit extensive coverage from other media outlets.

In the book’s introduction, Braithwaite acknowledges that he is damn glad he has postponed retirement to cover what he calls “one of the best” stories in his nearly 50-year career. However, lest we take something seemingly rock solid, enduring and readily available week after week, year after year, like the familiar silhouette of the Lowells themselves for granted, I [editorial comment approaching] believe this book, along with the coverage the Chronicle has provided, are as welcome and revitalizing as a strong cup of coffee on a cold morning in the newly blasted landscape.

Stand Against the Wind will be available soon at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Green Mountain Books and Prints in Lyndonville, Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, and at the Chronicle office in Barton. The book can be ordered now at: www.createspace.com/3869681.  Julia Shipley is the author of a poetry column about Vermont poems called “It could be Verse,” and she was the 2006 winner of the Ralph Nading Hill Award sponsored by Green Mountain Power, for which she received a cash prize of $1,500. She can be reached at her website:  Writingonthefarm.com.

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