College students take stock of old dam sites

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont’s forgotten dams are mostly small structures tucked away on streams and brooks, once used in small-scale milling operations. Most have been dormant for a century.
Students in the Middlebury College Environmental Studies Senior Seminar analyzed these dams and in a recent presentation led by Catherine Ashcraft and Diane Munroe proposed guidelines for removing or developing the existing infrastructure.
“When Vermont Yankee (nuclear power plant) is decommissioned, we’ll need to fill a serious energy deficit,” said environmental policy major Ben Wessel. “Now is the time to study small hydro, biomass, solar, large-scale wind. A lot of places hydro doesn’t make sense, because it’s not cost effective to develop an existing dam, or it’s a historical site, but it’s worth exploring.”
The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, which supplies a third of the state’s power, will go offline as soon as next year — it is they subject of litigation and could continue producing power for 20 years, but it will one day shut down. Policymakers and environmentalists are looking to replace Yankee’s power with local, renewable options like small hydro projects, Wessel said. 
“Vermonters are pretty bullish about keeping their power local,” he said. But Vermonters will have to depend on non-local sources of power, like water-generate electricity from Hydro-Quebec.
Energy self-sufficiency may be a state virtue, but it’s not going to happen through Green Mountain hydropower, the Middlebury students advised. Vermont’s large-scale hydro has long been exhausted with big dams on rivers like the Winooski. The Agency of Natural Resources estimates that only about 25 megawatts of developable hydropower remain in the state. Yankee, by comparison, produces 620 megawatts at full capacity. In a state whose peak energy load approaches 1,000 megawatts, new hydropower would essentially be a drop in the bucket.
“It would be wrong to try to replace Yankee with all local power,” Wessel said. “Vermont will have an energy shortage that we can fill somewhat at home. We’d be foolish to think that it all comes from here. In the carbon versus damming effects debate, Hydro-Quebec will win out.”
Last year, the Vermont Legislature formally accepted a long-term power deal with Hydro-Quebec, a government utility that already provides another third of the state’s power. Hydro-Quebec is in the midst of several of Canada’s largest construction projects, building 1,000-1,500 megawatt dams on remote northern rivers. Most of this power is slated for New England states like Vermont.
Not only did lawmakers agree to buy energy from the company, they also classed this energy as “renewable,” a designation that has previously only applied to projects of less than 200 megawatts. Environmentalists point out that while massive hydro-power has low carbon emissions, it fractures ecosystems and floods the homeland of the native Innu.
According to Phebe Meyers, a Middlebury senior geography major, while developing Vermont’s existing dams won’t displace indigenous people, some of the same environmental questions apply to both Hydro-Quebec’s massive projects and Vermont’s micro-hydro.
“It’s all about river continuity,” Meyers said.
In addition to energy balance questions, students in the seminar questioned existing dams in terms of environmental issues like fish habitat and groundwater security. Another key question was “Do the carbon emissions reduction outweigh the ecological impacts?”
The class’ analysis showed that developing all 25 megawatts of hydro capacity in Vermont would reduce the state’s carbon footprint by only 1 percent.
“We had to be careful to give a balanced report,” Meyers said. “We read through one of our drafts and found that we’d recommended removal for all dams in the state.”
Dam removal is a real option, and something that some planners often consider, said Wessel. Though dam removal is sometimes the most environmentally sound option, it is just as difficult to fund and permit as a development project.  Several dams in the state, including the Defresne Dam in Manchester, are being removed.
“Right now the process is very reactive,” Meyers said. “There’s a limited scope of analysis, it’s a case-by-case process, and the current design needs a dam proposal before anyone considers a location. We wanted to be more proactive.”
Meyers, along with several other group members, developed a rubric for dam development versus removal. The guidelines propose to aid in future feasibility studies.
Wessel, who hopes to present the seminar’s findings to a Vermont House committee in January, remained hopeful about Vermont’s energy future. 
“We’ll have to up our purchasing from the New England (power) grid, and we’ll probably see a lot of natural gas replacing Yankee. There’s always more to be done on efficiency,” he said. “I’m an optimist, though. We’ll figure it out.” 

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