NORTH POWNAL — Chef and restaurant owner Bill Scully has a winning recipe for restoring dormant Vermont hydropower facilities.
Work began in August on the North Bennington resident's $4 million project to overhaul a long-idle generation plant at a former factory site in North Pownal. By March, Scully expects his company, Hoosic River Hydro LLC, will have new generating equipment installed with a capacity of up to 500 kilowatts.
The project is the second hydropower project restoration Scully has undertaken in the past eight years. His first plant is operating in the village of North Bennington. There, in 2015, he brought the former Vermont Tissue Paper mill dam facility on the Walloomsac River back online.
To weigh that accomplishment, you have to understand that most of the hundreds of aging hydropower facilities in the state had shut down with the rise of natural gas- and oil-powered generation plants. Scully's Tissue Mill facility was only the second — by six months — to be licensed in Vermont over a 28-year period.
Then, consider that he also operates Pangaea restaurant in North Bennington and says he wades through most of the hydropower permitting paperwork during the winter when restaurant business slows.
The new venture, Hoosic River Hydro, is focused on the site of a former textile mill and later tannery on the Hoosic River off Route 346, and it utilizes the existing 153-foot wide, 18-foot high concrete dam.
With the complex permitting hurdles finally overcome, Scully said the turbine and generator system should be installed and ready for testing in March 2017. The power plant could go online a month later.
"I am pretty excited about the benefits these projects bring," he said. "This is something to feel good about."
The former mill's hydropower component dates to the 1860s, and the electricity generation equipment was installed in the 1930s and produced what Scully estimates was in the range of 250 kilowatts at peak level. Hoosic River Hydro will replace the old equipment with a 500-kilowatt Wasserkraft Kaplan turbine and new generator.
The current dam was constructed during the 1950s, replacing less durable structures dating back to the mill's early history.
Licensing and permitting were somewhat streamlined in this case, Scully said, because he only had to apply for an amended license, not a new one, reflecting the modern equipment's increased output. But it was a lengthy slough just the same, he said. It involved mounds of paperwork and dealing with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the state's brownfields redevelopment program and other entities, as well as the utility that will purchase the electricity generated — Green Mountain Power.
State Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal-Woodford, lauded the effort, saying that Scully has become "a master" at bringing back defunct hydropower plants because of his experience at the two Bennington County sites.
"Bill has done a really remarkable job," Botzow said. The state representative said that several other developers looked at the North Pownal site, but could not overcome the environmental and licensing issues — including pollution in sediment behind the dam.
"We are fortunate to have him living in our area," Botzow said.
The hydropower facility was shut down in the 1980s when the factory business, then called the Pownal Tanning Co., declared bankruptcy and closed. The rambling brick mill, which began life as a textile factory in the mid-1800s, was converted into a hide-tanning facility in 1935.
Pollution resulting from that operation, in and around the mill and in "lagoon" areas nearby where tanning wastes were stored, led to the mill parcels being declared a federal Superfund site in 1999.
The federal government subsequently funded demolition of the mill and oversaw a multimillion-dollar cleanup of the Superfund sites, which today include a town park alongside a bridge crossing the Hoosic. That work was completed in the early 2000s, and the town has since entertained several expressions of interest in restoring the hydropower operation.
Complicating matters were the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that flowed down the river — likely from mills in nearby Massachusetts — and settled behind the concrete dam.
This week, crews with Bankcroft Contracting Corp., of Maine, the general contractor specializing in hydropower facility work, were setting up a temporary cofferdam behind the concrete dam to allow the approximately 1,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil to be first de-watered and then removed for trucking to a hazardous waste disposal site.
Scully said the experience of dealing with similar deposits of PCBs and dioxin behind the Vermont Tissue Paper dam made it easier to obtain an accurate assessment of the extent of the contaminated sediment through test borings and a map of the surface of the impoundment area bed.
Green Mountain Power crews also have been busy recently, running transmission lines to the site from the state highway — some of that installed underground where they crossed the town's riverside park.
The electricity generated at the North Pownal site — estimated at 3.5 million kilowatts per year — will be distributed as net-metering credits to Southern Vermont College and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, both in Bennington, and to the town of Pownal.
In an announcement, SVC President David Evans said, "This hydropower project not only helps to change the energy landscape in Vermont away from non-renewable resources, it also creates new jobs, helps to bring back fish passages that have not existed for years, and substantially remediates streambed pollution from earlier industrial uses. While the college will not be directly powered by the hydro plant, we can offset most or all of our electricity use through our participation in the net-metering group."
Pownal Select Board Chairman Ronald Bisson noted that in addition to a lower electricity rate for town buildings, the development will bring in new tax revenue.
"I'm all for hydro," he said. "And this is good for the environment and runs constantly, not like solar or wind [generation facilities]."
Scully said he was inspired about eight years ago to enter the labyrinth of state and federal regulations and requirements involved in hydropower facilities, which had slowly withered to be replaced by oil and gas facilities.
"The irony," he said, "is that Vermont was built on hydro."
Scully said his primary motivation was environmental, because of the potential to reduce carbon emissions and global warming through a renewable resource that he noted is capable of generating power up to 24 hours a day, unlike solar facilities requiring sunlight to operate.
"When I got into this eight years ago," Scully said, "I asked, 'Why aren't people doing this?'"
Settling first on the North Bennington mill, he and partners in that venture invested about $2.25 million — with financing help through the Vermont Economic Development Authority — to restore a facility that opened in 2015 and generates up to 360 kilowatts of power. That electricity is distributed to local businesses and the town of Bennington in the form of net-metering credits through Green Mountain Power.
While the facility will be fully automated, it will be closely monitored through cameras and equipment sensors and will be checked on a daily basis.
Scully and Armin Moehrle, his partner in Hoosic River Hydro LLC, approached the Pownal Select Board about leasing the dam in 2012. The town obtained control of the facility from the former Massachusetts-based factory owners following the Superfund cleanup.
VEDA financing "played a vital role" in making both projects possible, Scully stressed, as did the state's brownfields program. In fact, despite the challenging task of completing forms and developing technical plans for the various agencies involved, Scully said public officials in all aspects of the process "have been immensely helpful."
Acknowledging those who advocate removing old mill dams to improve river ecosystems for aquatic life, Scully praised Vermont "for making the huge leap in making environmental policies that are compatible with hydro, but not a compromise [in preserving river systems]."
There are more than 1,200 aging dams in the state, he said, with roughly 200 to 400 potentially good sites for hydropower. While there are impacts on the rivers when they are dammed, "global warming also harms the rivers," he said, adding that hydropower "needs to be considered in this conversation, and that is staring to happen now."
"Hydro makes a lot of sense," Botzow said, in that it involves working with infrastructure "we already have," and often cleans up pollution in sediment, resulting in a cleaner river.