On October 15, 2015

Dam removal vs. hydropower in Vermont: a developer’s view

Dear Editor,

I got interested in hydroelectric power in an instant on Dec. 26, 2008. While driving and listening to an NPR news piece regarding the skyrocketing price of oil, I had an epiphany. I live in a mill town and there are five dams within one mile of my home. I was deeply disturbed by the fact that we weren’t tapping the hydroelectric power potential of these dams.

Opinions were abundant as to why, but there had been no new hydroelectric development in Vermont in 28 years and I set out to change that. I learned that there were about 1,000 unused dams in the state. I learned that over 80 percent of Vermont’s energy was provided by foreign-owned companies. The more I dug, the more I knew I was right: we can develop some of these dams to produce renewable energy. What I didn’t expect was that the people across the table from me, the stewards of our waterways, were also right: there are unused dams which should be removed.

Vermont has a long history of hydropower dating back to its early settlement–those old dams were built for a reason. Just as important, we own this energy resource and Vermont should be powered by Vermonters. That said, I moved here 25 years ago from California for many reasons and one of them is the quality of our waterways–a value I share with many. I feel that any energy development must be environmentally responsible, and that’s what we’ve done at the Vermont Tissue Project on the Walloomsac River.

Of these 1,000 or so dams in the state, it’s difficult to determine which have value. Dams have a variety of uses, including water supply, water treatment, flood control and of course power generation. As a hydropower developer, I tend to use a simple question for determining value: can the site be developed in compliance with our water quality standards and remain economically viable?

Hydroelectric power is a local, available and cost-effective renewable resource, but we also must recognize that we are holding Vermont developers to a high standard because their projects affect resources that belong to all of us–and they should be supported in their efforts. With this, developers should support removal of the defunct albatrosses that we have been clinging to. Dams that support a strong financial model can fund their own maintenance, improve degraded aquatic habitat, develop recreational facilities, create jobs and foster our instate wealth. Dams may be good candidates for removal if they don’t serve a useful purpose but increase public safety risk, reduce our resilience to future floods or have ongoing negative impacts on the environment.

I supported the removal of the Henry Bridge dam in North Bennington. It had no economic potential to produce power and over many years there were several near drownings and one reported fatality. Responsible management of Vermont’s dams must include an evaluation of the removal benefits of defunct sites with no practical value. While we may not all agree on which should stay, it is a conversation we must have.

We simply cannot live without healthy waterways, one of our most precious natural resources. So, in the end, my vision for Vermont’s dams is to develop 100 percent of those that make sense from an economic perspective and that maintain a high level of water quality. We should examine the rest objectively to determine which ones should be removed.

Sincerely, William F. Scully

William Scully is a North Bennington-based entrepreneur who is redeveloping the building and dam at the former Vermont Tissue mill in North Bennington. The hydroelectric project at the site was commissioned on Sept. 15, 2015. He is currently developing another project at the former Pownal Tannery dam, due to be online in 2016, and has a third project in the early stages of development.

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