Red Tape Runs Through It | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Red Tape Runs Through It

It's no smooth sailing for small-scale hydro power in Vermont

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Ian Young is an eighth-grader at Twinfield Union School in Plainfield. On a crisp Saturday, he stands at the edge of Naismith Brook in shorts and a Metallica T-shirt, balancing on a smooth boulder while he explains the mechanics of a hydro-power system that he and five classmates are building.

"So this is the pool we'll be taking from," he says, pointing to a deep, blue-green swimming hole where locals are known to skinny-dip. High above Young is an old railroad bed; below, big blocks of cut granite peek from the water. "Over there," he continues, "coming out from that bank, we'll have an intake, which will lead to a stilling well, and then it will go into a pen-stock and a pipeline that goes straight towards the powerhouse and the school."

Twinfield Union School sits 150 vertical feet below the intake pool. It's a low-slung building on a hillside just above the Winooski River. Last year, the school burned through $58,000 worth of electricity, or 500,000 kilowatt-hours, which released 385 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (For comparison, the average home uses 6000 to 8000 kilowatt-hours per year.) Over the past three years, Young says, the school's student body has shrunk by nearly 120. "We've had to cut three teaching positions, so there are a lot less options, and now we're down to the bare minimum."

There's no intrinsic connection between the problems of global warming and school funding. But Twinfield Union is symptomatic of both. And its Project Citizen group hopes to solve them with one solution: homemade hydro power.

Project Citizen is a federally funded program that encourages middle-schoolers to become engaged in public policy through the identification of a problem in their town. Then the students brainstorm solutions and adopt an action plan to entice the appropriate governmental entity to promulgate their proposed policy. This is serious business at Twinfield Union: The school is credited with five of the past seven Championship Portfolios. Last year, Twinfield won for its plan to "Restore the Pledge of Allegiance." This year, the project is patriotic in a more oblique way. "What we've really been working on is permitting - it's expensive and it takes a lot of time for hydro right now," Young reports.

Hydro power itself is nothing new. "I feel like I'm on the cutting edge for 1910," jokes Lori Barg, the founder and chief executive of Community Hydro, a Plainfield company that helps municipalities turn their old dams and current wastewater and water-supply systems into hydro-power generators. "The economic and productive history of Vermont all had to do with hydro power. We had 2000 mills in the state, and vibrant economies that actually produced something," she says stridently.

A 2006 Department of Energy study found 1200 sites in Vermont that can feasibly be developed for hydro-power production. Of those, 107 are pre-existing dams owned by 45 towns - dams that, for the most part, aren't going anywhere. "Because houses and villages grew after the dams were built, the dams provide structural and grade control, and if we lose them, we could lose many of our bridges, roads and houses," Barg explains. "My idea is," she continues, "how can we turn these dams back into an asset that will benefit the community?"

Besides being a river geologist and hydro-power history buff, Barg is the go-to gal for Twinfield Union's project. She beams with delight as Young delves into the biggest conundrum facing the project: the permitting process. "If the system is not changed," he predicts, "this project will cost $200,000 just to permit, and we won't be able to do it."

Why so expensive? The answer, as usual, has a lot to do with bureaucracy. Through the Federal Power Act, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has original jurisdiction over all hydro sites that put power back into the electric grid. Much of FERC's permitting scheme is administered by the individual state agencies, such as Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), which must bless each hydro-power project with a 401 water-quality certification (for section 401 of the Federal Clean Water Act).

And that's anything but a rubber-stamp procedure. When you look a bit deeper into the requirements, it's easy to understand why the Agency of Natural Resources hasn't permitted a new hydro project in 20 years. To get a 401 certification, each proposed site must undergo an intensive investigation. "That's the big problem: site-specific field studies for flow and fisheries," Barg says. "Those studies cost a fortune."

Why can't the ANR make the permit process more user friendly? Julie Moore, its regulatory policy analyst, says, "The Agency is all in favor of environmentally sound renewable energy." The challenge, Moore explains, is that "the current process is not designed with smaller projects in mind."

Barg illustrates the problem with a story about a man in Montana who wanted to connect a 40-watt generator to the grid. Such a generator can't crank enough juice to power a 60-watt light bulb. Regardless, the good Montanan called FERC for guidance. The feds sent him a truckload of information and applications, because, says Barg, "Size does not matter with FERC - 40 watts or 400 megawatts, the project gets treated the same."

That's the core of the problem to which, in keeping with Project Citizen protocol, Ian Young and his cohorts have crafted a solution. "We've contacted Bernie Sanders and talked about the idea of putting a floor on FERC for projects under 2 megawatts, and our project would fall in that category," Young says. If such a "floor" were put in place, states with their own extensive permitting scheme - such as Vermont - would be able to waive the burdensome federal requirements and regulate the particular plan unilaterally.

The Twinfield students didn't stop there. Young explains nonchalantly, "We met with George Crombie, who's the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, and a couple of us have testified in front of different Senate committees about the hydro energy bill."

That bill is H.S. 520, an act that focuses on conserving energy and producing it through renewable sources; it has already passed both House and Senate and awaits the governor's signature. Twinfield hoped to put a provision in the act that would require ANR to simplify the 401 process.

That didn't pan out. Instead, the bill bears a weaker "report-back" requirement, which gives ANR until December 15, 2007, to report to various legislative committees with recommendations for a "simple, predictable, environmentally sound procedure" for reviewing water-quality certifications sought by mini hydro-electric facilities.

Still, it's progress, according to Young. The reporting requirement will force ANR to refresh its recollection after 20 years of a hydro-permitting hiatus. "They could realize that the process wastes too much time and money, and decide to change it," he speculates.

Down by the Winooski River, with Twinfield Union looming dormant in the background, Young and Barg say their hydro generator will produce more than enough power to run the school. What will happen to the overflow? This is where the project once again encounters red tape - a familiarity with Public Service Board rules and the concept of "net metering" comes in handy.

James Volz, the chairman of the Public Service Board, explains that the PSB's role in mini-hydro power projects "is limited primarily to issues related to interconnection with the local electric system or when a developer seeks a specialized rate treatment." "Net metering," he says, "allows a customer to offset its electric bill through small-scale renewable generation." But under the current rule, if a customer generates more energy than it uses in one year, the extra energy can't be sold to the utility or credited to the customer for future use. In effect, it's gifted back to the electric company.

That's an outcome the Twinfield students want to avoid. The solution is to take advantage of a PSB rule that allows a power-producing customer to gather a group of local power users and put them on one net-metering account. Twinfield's net-metering group will include the superintendent's office across the street, the town's wastewater treatment plant, and maybe even the Plainfield Fire Department.

The up-front cost of going carbon-neutral isn't cheap. The bill at the end of the project is expected to top $500,000. Barg says, "We're hoping to get grants and renewable-energy credits to make it less costly. But cost is definitely the problem."

The bulk of the money will come from a bank loan that the school will pay instead of an electric bill. "It's revenue-neutral in terms of the school budget and should start gaining money pretty darn quickly," Barg says. By "gaining money," she means that, as electricity costs go up for everyone else, the school's loan payment will stay the same. Therefore, in 10 years, when the school's electric bill could be more than $100,000, the budget will be operating with a sizable surplus, or property taxes will go down.

And that gets back to Young's concern about a withering curriculum. The money saved through the hydro generation "is more than enough to employ a teacher for a year, and that's one more option, one more year's worth of classes," he says.

Long-term thinking is a skill Young has developed early. If all goes swimmingly, Twinfield Union will be making its own power in two years. But Young says he'll be happy if it gets done before he graduates high school, and he and his teammates plan to continue working on the issue long after Project Citizen is a memory.

Looking even further down the line, Young comes up with a proverb of sorts: "If every school in the world can produce all of the energy it uses with on-site renewables, then global warming will be partially remedied by those who will feel its repercussions the most."

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