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Two hydro turbines take shape in county

N.J.-based developer of projects at Townshend, Ball Mountain dams says both may be online by fall

TOWNSHEND—Two long-delayed Windham County hydroelectric stations are well underway and may begin producing power by fall, the developer said Wednesday.

New Jersey-based Eagle Creek Renewable Energy LLC is building hydro projects at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams in Townshend and Jamaica. While the West River turbines are relatively small – they will produce 3.1 megawatts combined – they have required years of development and permitting work.

“It feels very good,” said Bud Cherry, Eagle Creek’s chief executive officer. “It was a long journey. There were a number of challenges that came up along the way.”

Corps of Engineers officials say they are working well with Eagle Creek and said the dam sites remain open to the public for visitation and recreation in spite of the construction activity.

“We have to make sure [the work] is done consistently and with good quality, and thus far we’ve been pleased with the quality of the work,” said Frank Fedele, an engineer who is operations division chief for the Corps’ New England District.

Eagle Creek is pursuing the projects at Townshend and Ball Mountain dams under the corporate name Blue Heron Hydro LLC. The company acquired the projects in summer 2012.

Before that acquisition, the hydro projects already had received 50-year licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. There also have been long-term power-purchase agreements in place via Vermont’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program.

But it had been difficult for Blue Heron to get the projects moving. The state in 2009 had set a three-year commissioning deadline, then granted an extension to the end of 2013.

In April 2013, the Vermont Public Service Board granted a second extension through Oct. 31, 2014, at Blue Heron’s request. Last summer, a third extension set a new deadline of Dec. 31, 2015.

In the final stages of development, company administrators said they were waiting for Army Corps permits, citing a backlog at the agency. Those permits eventually were granted, and work began a few months ago.

“We’re in construction. Things are moving along expeditiously at both sites, and we expect to be in service in the fall, well ahead of the end of the permit deadline,” Cherry said.

He said the hydroelectric facilities “should come together relatively quickly” for a variety of reasons.

For instance, he noted that the company is working with existing dam infrastructure maintained by the Army Corps. Also, some utility infrastructure was put in place before Blue Heron began construction.

Additionally, “we had a lot of the equipment ordered, and a lot of it was sitting in warehouses in the region just waiting for it to move to the site,” Cherry said. “And little by little, that’s happening.”

Site work includes new access roads, removal of old concrete and installation of new concrete to support the turbines, which were fabricated by a Colorado company.

Overall, Cherry said, “we’re pleased with where we are.”

The company has not released a price tag for the projects, and Cherry again declined to estimate the cost last week.

Fedele said hydro contractors have been “a constant presence” at the dam sites.

“They’re typically working six days a week, 10 hours a day,” Fedele said. “Right now, they’re in the process of constructing two control buildings – one at each site.”

Fedele said local Army Corps staff have been working closely with Blue Heron and its contractors, and that includes drawing down water levels to allow for the work to proceed.

For example, Fedele said Ball Mountain’s summer “pool” depth typically is about 65 feet, but it’s been maintained this summer at 35 feet – usually the maximum pool depth in the winter.

“We’ve had a relatively dry summer, which has worked out well,” Fedele said.

Eagle Creek is not paying the Army Corps any money, and there is no lease agreement, Fedele said.

Rather, in addition to the permits the Corps has issued, the agency developed a construction memorandum of understanding with the developer, and there eventually will be an agreement governing operations and maintenance.

Though the Army Corps is not making any money from the hydro projects, Fedele sees the new turbines as compatible with the agency’s work.

“We have a pool there that we keep for flood-risk management and recreation, and they’re using that pool for another mission,” Fedele said, adding that the hydroelectric stations are “consistent with our mission and goals.”

Cherry said the turbines also fit into Eagle Creek’s portfolio. The company owns and operates 43 hydroelectric facilities in seven states, and Eagle Creek last week announced the acquisition of the 1.5 megawatt Newfound Hydro site in Bristol, N.H.

The turbines at Townshend and Ball Mountain will be Eagle Creek’s first two facilities in Vermont.

“There are a lot of existing dams ... that are suitable for adding generation, and this is a purposefully small step into that space for us to see how the total permitting system worked for us,” Cherry said. “We’re going to be continuing to look for similar opportunities and potentially larger facilities. We’ve grown substantially over our four years of life, and we’re very pleased with being able to maintain that growth.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #321 (Wednesday, September 2, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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