New firm emerges for Middlebury hydro project

MIDDLEBURY — A private company is exploring the possibility of taking over planning and possible construction of a hydroelectric facility at Middlebury’s Otter Creek falls that would employ a new technology borrowed from an ancient Greek physicist to potentially reduce the footprint and impact of the project.
New England Hydroelectric Company (NEHC) officials from as far afield as Great Britain converged upon the Otter Creek falls in downtown Middlebury on Tuesday to size up the location’s potential for hosting a hydro project using a principal known as “Archimedes’ screw.”
With a U.S. office in Beverly Farms, Mass., NEHC builds, owns, operates and manages small-scale hydropower works using dams throughout the country, according to the company’s website. The company has helped develop dozens of small-scale hydro projects in Europe and is scheduled next spring to begin construction on a hydro facility in Meriden, Conn.
“We are the first company to offer this technology in the United States in a river setting,” said Christian Conover, chief marketing officer for NEHC. Conover and NEHC founder and CEO Michael Kerr were among company officials who spent Tuesday exploring the Otter Creek falls site, talking to local leaders and abutting landowners about NEHC’s preliminary interest in Middlebury.
Conover explained that NEHC became aware of the Otter Creek falls site while reviewing hundreds of other potential hydro sites in the U.S. The company then reached out to representatives of Middlebury Electric LLC — including Anders Holm, whose family owns the building at 56 Main St., right next to the picturesque falls, under which the Otter Creek rushes. Middlebury Electric has sought to resurrect long-dormant hydropower activities at the falls, and most recently pitched a project calling for a 1.6-megawatt (or 2,145-horsepower) generator that, based on conservative flows, would manufacture enough energy to power around 2,000 homes.
The Middlebury selectboard has conducted on-again, off-again discussions in recent years with Middlebury Electric regarding the hydro project and the level of support the town might give. The board this past March sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) confirming its support for what is being called the “Middlebury Upper Hydroelectric Project,” based on its signing of a non-binding term sheet with Middlebury Electric.
Middlebury Electric officials believe an as-yet undefined relationship with NEHC could give an added boost to the project. NEHC had proven success working through the FERC permitting process and emphasizes transparency and building a good working relationship with the host community and neighbors, according to its corporate literature.
Conover stressed that NEHC is simply exploring the hydro potential of the Otter Creek falls site and could ultimately decide to take a pass for any number of reasons, be they financial, logistical or otherwise.
“Until we know this (potential) is real, we are not going to spend the money,” he said.
“Archimedes’ screw” hydro facilities extract energy from downward moving water through an upward-tilting turbine that resembles a large screw. The mass of the water turns the tilted screw. The flow of that mass is controlled by hydraulically driven sluice gates. Water enters the screw at the top, and the significant weight of that water is lowered slowly down to a lower level of the waterway as the screw rotates, according to NEHC.
A gearbox at the top of the screw drives a generator that produces standard three-phase power for either the grid or direct users as state distribution laws allow. The entire facility is linked to an electronic monitoring and control system that runs automatically, but communicates to an operator whenever requested.
“Safety, shutdown and management protocols are strict and efficient,” the company claims.
Fish entering the turbine emerge unharmed, as there is “plenty of space” for them to move through the machine, according to company literature. At the same time, the project is designed in a way so that animals and humans could not be sucked into the turbine, according to Conover.
Each NEHC project is custom-made to fit into the desired site, according to Conover.
He said it is too early to speculate on how large an Archimedes’ screw — if any — could be placed at the falls. But company literature indicates “small-scale screw generation facilities can develop from 50kW to 200kW at dams that are 25 feet or less, with larger systems generating up to 500kW. In this range, they are economically sound while providing benefits to an array of partners.”
Middlebury officials have stressed a desire to minimize the potential aesthetic and environmental impacts that a hydro project could have on the Otter Creek falls, one of Middlebury’s most beloved and photographed natural assets.
Here’s some of what the company’s website has to say about project design:
“The goal is to create a facility that is a good complement to what is around it. It will be part of the local landscape for a relatively long period of time, so it is important. The (power)houses are tailored: Wood clapboard, stone and brick facing along with more standard external materials are considered in the context of the project costs and the local environment. The equipment is not in the middle of the dam, but on the side in every case, preserving the natural allure of seasonal water flow over each dam.”
Conover said NEHC prefers to build its projects smaller and have them function at a high capacity rather than run the risk of over-building and seeing them run at low capacity.
“We tailor (the project) very carefully,” he said.
If NEHC were to pursue a project at the Otter Creek falls, it would become the first in Vermont to use Archimedes’ screw technology, according to Conover.
Middlebury officials were guardedly optimistic following Tuesday’s meetings with NEHC.
“The meetings went well and everyone seemed to be on the same page, though a lot of details need to be worked out,” said Dave Hallam, who has been hired by the town to help represent its interests in the hydro discussions.
Holm said he and his family are “extremely excited” about the prospect of partnering with NEHC.
“We are also extremely excited about the technology that we had previously been unaware of,” he said. “It will literally turn the project upside down and make it an even smaller footprint.”
Abutting landowners are keenly interested in the latest hydro news and are seeking more clarity as NEHC moves forward. Among those landowners is George Dorsey, owner of the Edgewater Gallery that fronts the Otter Creek falls in Frog Hollow.
“All I would ask is that everybody needs to be concerned enough to make sure that the construction process doesn’t damage existing structures; that the proponent has the wherewithal to remedy any damage to existing structures if that takes place; and that the proponent has a go-forward, stable financial picture that allows it to service and maintain the facility for the next 30 years, 40 years or however long (the facility) will be out there,” Dorsey said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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