Alpen Steel | Renewable Energy

~ Untapped Energy Source

Middlebury, Vt., resident Anders Holm sits in Otter Creek, near an old mill that he plans to restore. Once the project is complete, the river will generate electricity for the town. (Photograph by Stephen Wilkes)

U.S. Looks to Rediscover Hydropower as Untapped Energy Source



From the front, the old brick mill in Middlebury, Vt., looks like any of the other quaint buildings lining the town’s main street. But inside, through yawning gaps in a patchwork floor of long, narrow planks, the gray-green waters of Otter Creek can be seen churning toward a 23-ft. waterfall. Anchored to a stone bridge above the river, the building once had a mill wheel that drove wool-processing equipment; later, a penstock carried water to a turbine, generating electricity for the town’s streetlights.

For the past 42 years, the power of the river has gone untapped—the turbine is long since dismantled—and Middlebury’s electricity now comes from the grid. The only sign of the penstock, the pipe that funneled water to the powerhouse, is a crumbling concrete frame, and the sluice gate that controlled the river diversion is missing its metal plate. Local resident Anders Holm plans to change that.

An ear, nose and throat specialist who grew up in town, Holm was born a few years after the hydropower system was retired. His father purchased the mill in the 1980s and rented it out as commercial space. But changing times—particularly the events of Sept. 11, 2001—convinced Holm to reduce his dependence on foreign oil. He covered his home with solar panels. Then he and his brother, Erik, decided to restore both the mill and the hydropower.

“Our original plan was to make power for our own property,” Holm says. “We didn’t intend to sell it. But then we realized the enormous power potential and knew we had to do more.” Unlike the old system, the new one will take advantage of every inch of head—the water pressure exerted by gravity—and will use a modern 1-megawatt turbine. Under ideal conditions, it will generate enough electricity for about 1000 homes, or most of downtown Middlebury.

Of course, reviving aging infrastructure is no small task. Holm, who recently built a mahogany deck at his home using only hand tools, didn’t shy away from the challenge. Instead he took two months off from his surgical practice to work on the project full-time. His first task: Reduce the flow of the river under the building’s northwest corner to a mere gurgle so that the foundation could be repaired.

But even after the river diversion is fully restored, Holm expects it will be three years before the turbine goes in. It’s already been four years since he enlisted the help of lawyers and engineers. The protracted timeline reflects a regulatory process that governs even small renewable energy projects. But Holm is looking at it “with a surgeon’s mentality,” he says. “No matter how long it takes, it has got to get fixed.”

When the equipment is finally in place, the rushing water of Otter Creek will provide Middlebury with a reliable source of renewable power, just as it did in 1890. “Once it’s up and running, it will be a carbon-free source of power,” Holm says. In contrast, if the same amount of energy were generated in a coal-fired electric plant, it would produce 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Because there’s no dam on-site, just the natural waterfall, fish can bypass the hydropower system and move freely downriver. And because the new turbine is an innovative water-lubricated design, the river water will be as clean going out as it was coming in.
By Madeline Bodin
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