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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

West River hydro project not yet a done deal

Favorable FERC report helps, but Corps approval not certain

TOWNSHEND—A recently issued favorable environmental assessment from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is the good news for Blue Heron Hydro, the Plainfield-based developer proposing two powerful hydroelectric projects on two West River flood-control dams in Townshend and Jamaica.

FERC will or will not issue the final license for the four-year-old renewable energy project that, when completed, could generate enough power for an estimated 3,000 homes in the region.

According to FERC media relations spokeswoman Celeste Miller, this latest report is an important step toward gaining that final imprimatur, but she emphasized that it was just one part of the commission’s licensing considerations.

Less encouraging, according to a spokesman from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams and holds the power to accept or reject the project, are the remaining incomplete reports from Blue Heron relating to the construction and operation of the $10 million project.

And those reports, so-called 408s, were frequently cited in the 100-plus page environmental assessment as conditions that Blue Heron must meet before the final license is issued.

A section of the environmental assessment describes the requirements of the Corps, including approval of design and construction: “The licensee must submit to the Corps a Section 408 application which will include complete plans and specifications and 100-percent engineering design drawings.”

Blue Heron CEO and project leader Lori Barg acknowledges the outstanding reports and notes that Blue Heron and Corps officials have already met a half dozen times to work out these requirements.

She also said that the company now confronts the risks of spending a lot of money on what remains only a partially approved project.

That conundrum concerns Barg and Tom Willard, a consulting engineer who has worked with Blue Heron on the hydro project throughout the permitting process.

“The final design is a major expense,” Willard explained. “Blue Heron wants permitting in order before the final design is submitted. We’ve now got two of the three big [approvals], state and FERC [conditionally].”

He would like the Corps to be more flexible on the sequential demands.

Willard also believes that the rest of the permitting is fairly straightforward. But he is skeptical of the details the Corps wants.

“For example, when we put in the turbines and run cables from them to buildings, the Corps wants final engineering details — like what kind of epoxy are we using,” he said.

Barg says Blue Heron has been submitting answers and solutions to the Corps in meetings starting in 2010, and that there has been back-and-forth communication all along. She also noted the expense of permitting, given the details the Corps demands.

“They want to know, for instance, what the rebar [steel cables] issues are when you cut into concrete,” she said.

She also explained, by way of example, that the turbine generating units are upstream of the gates and the Corps wants to know what would would happen “if the need arose to fully open the gates for flood control.”

“The ability to lift the turbines is integral to the system,” she said, citing hydraulic operations that are a part of the design.

“Until you get the green light to go, you risk even more money working on these sequential details” before the project is fully permitted, she added.

Borg said that Blue Heron has already submitted two 408 reports and that the company has plans to submit others.

“Mostly, they are concerned that we do not interfere with Corps operations in favor of our project,” she said. “I think we are aware of their concerns. We are playing in the Corps house and we will follow their rules. We know where the holes are, and we plan to fill them.”

Chris Hatfield, a regional district coordinator for the Corps in Concord, Mass., was less sanguine. He said significant issues of construction viability and operation remain unresolved.

“Technical analysis and adequacy of design, including structural stability raised by the weight of new construction on the dam tower, water flow, hours and control of operation, and real estate impact,” are some of the Corps concerns, he said.

Corps requirements are set out in detail in a two-page description of the assessment report; some have been addressed, while others remain.

In a press release sent out by Borg announcing the positive environmental assessment issued by FERC, she also wrote that the project must meet certain deadlines to gain financial benefits from the state’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program to promote renewable energy development.

“We have to be up and running by 2014,” Borg said. “Installation of the new hydroelectric facilities must be complete by the end of 2014 to remain eligible for SPEED and to receive federal tax incentives that are critical to the project’s overall financing.”

What would happen?

The dilemmas over what comes first — the licenses to operate or the full and complete project designs — remain.

However, here’s what will happen if the all the licenses are issued.

The Townshend Dam Hydroelectric project, using the existing dam and reservoir, would consist of two turbine generators placed in the existing intake tower, which would connect to six submersible generators for a total capacity of 925 kilowatts.

The larger Ball Mountain Dam project in Jamaica would also use the existing dam and reservoir in a similar configuration with appropriate adaptation to generate a capacity of 2,200 kilowatts.

These two West River dams, part of a series of seven Corps-operated dams in the Connecticut River Basin in Vermont and New Hampshire, were built between 1958 and 1961 at a cost of just under $18 million.

The Townshend dam is 1,700 feet long and 133 feet high. The site, including the dam and associated land, consists of 1,010 acres.

The Ball Mountain dam is 915 feet long and 265 feet high. That site, including the dam and associated land, consists of 1,227 acres.

Apart from flood control, the two dams provide lake and river recreation sites, as well as rafting and kayaking during whitewater releases — usually two per year.

The sites include hiking trails and other Corps-related camping and nature programs. The hydroelectric projects are expected to have no impact on these programs.

More recently, fish and wildlife management has become a significant undertaking for the Corps, and those operations have been considered in the hydroelectric permitting process.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #134 (Wednesday, January 11, 2012).

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