By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Developers who want to install a water turbine at the Otter Creek falls in downtown Middlebury are hoping to sign up the town of Middlebury and Middlebury College as their two exclusive clients for electricity, a move they believe will make the project more financially viable and less encumbered by permitting hurdles.
Anders Holm and his family — owners of the Main Street building that borders the south side of the falls — are proposing the water turbine, which would harness electricity from the water that flows through a flume under the Holm building. The electricity would be processed in a powerhouse erected on town-owned land near the base of the footbridge that links Frog Hollow with the Marble Works complex across the Otter Creek.
The Holms have spent the past two years refining their project while seeking financing and the necessary permits. The Holms have experienced setbacks on both counts, driving up the costs and lengthening the timeline of their proposal.
They now believe that a partnership with the town and college could expedite the process. The Holms are hoping to make the two entities the only wholesale consumers of their water turbine’s power. Such an arrangement, Holm said, could instantly give the project firm standing and credibility among permitting and financing organizations.
College and town officials last week acknowledged interest in the Holm project, though they stressed the need for more study.
“We are still exploring the economic feasibility of this project, but we’re excited by the idea of developing a green energy source that would provide power to the college and town,” said Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz.
“We are wanting to explore how to organize and operate a very limited utility here, one with only two clients — the town and the college,” said Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny. “Certainly, there is a keen interest on the part of the town to see if we can make this work.”
The Holms are seeking a “certificate of public good” through the Vermont Public Service Board as part of the permitting process to move forward with the turbine project. That process, Holm explained, requires that the applicant line up a customer for the power the project will generate. To that end, the Holms are seeking to secure commitments form the town of Middlebury and the college.
Such an arrangement could provide benefits to all parties involved, according to Holm. It could specifically:
• Make the water turbine application more viable in the eyes of permitting authorities. Having major entities as the college and town as backers and consumers would give the project more clout.
• Avoid the prospect of having to connect the project into the state’s power grid. Dealing exclusively with the college and town, Holm said, would involve a less complex process of extending power feeds to the nearby campus and municipal system.
“The bureaucracy of putting electricity on the (state) grid is very daunting,” Holm said.
• Provide a clean, renewable energy source to potentially illuminate the town’s streetlights, library and municipal building, as well as structures on campus.
• Ostensibly give the college a tremendous boost in meeting its objective of becoming carbon neutral by 2016. To that end, the college has already initiated or completed a series of projects to reduce its carbon footprint, including construction of an $11 million woodchip-burning biomass plant. The college has also made an increasing commitment to purchase locally produced foods and has been operating a wind turbine to provide some electricity for its recycling facility.
Harnessing a substantial amount of its electricity needs from a water turbine in the Otter Creek could greatly accelerate the college’s mission to become carbon neutral.
The Holms have reapplied for up to $250,000 from the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund (CEDF) to help further their project. Administered by the Vermont Department of Public Service, the CEDF contains grant money for projects that create and promote clean, renewable energy. Holm would use the money to defray some of the upfront costs — such as permitting and legal expenses — to get the plan rolling.
The Middlebury hydro project failed to secure a CEDF grant last year, but Holm is more optimistic this year. He explained that his 2008 application is more complete, as he and his family have been able to provide more information about the proposed project — including the condition and viability of the flume under the Holm building through which the water would pass to the turbine.
“We are also very fortunate that a Middlebury College student did his physics thesis on the power potential of the site, looking at flows from the last 100 years,” Holm said. “That was very helpful.”
The new information, according to Holm, affirms his family’s contention that the project could produce up to a megawatt of power — enough to light around 1,000 homes. He also said the project could generate power throughout the year — more abundantly during the late spring when the creek level is high, and less intensively during the late summer, when the water level is lower.
Holm hopes the hydropower project can come on line in 2010, which would be the 120th anniversary of when water energy was first used at the Otter Creek site.
“It’s ambitious, but that’s my goal,” Holm said.