Small hydro advocates say their projects don’t promise the economic payoff to justify environmental studies that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Mostly, what we’ve received so far is an invitation to finance a lot of studies around fish populations and habitat,” said Andy Broderick, president of the nonprofit affordable housing group Housing Vermont, which is refurbishing the apartment building in Windsor. “It just seems like we would spend a lot of money on feasibility studies … and never get a permit. The path to yes is not clear.”
Ann Lawless, executive director of the Precision Museum, said she’s also discouraged. “It looks like it’s going to be very challenging to make anything happen, because of the regulatory environment or the lack of parameters.”
It’s impossible to say how many projects have been stymied by the regulatory hurdles, as many never reach the formal permit application stage, officials said.
John Seebach, director of hydropower reform with the environmental group American Rivers, said some hydro projects – particularly those that use already existing dams – can work. But he said he doesn’t want to see regulations pulled back.
“A lot of these smaller, sort of mom-and-pop hydropower projects are most notorious at having serious compliance issues over the life of the license,” he said. “If something breaks … they don’t have the money available to fix it.”
Not everyone has been daunted by regulatory hurdles. At the Stockport Mill Inn in Ohio, innkeeper Dottie Singer said the regulatory process took years but the result has been worth it. Water flowing over the old mill dam adjacent to the inn is run through twin turbines that more than offset the hotel and restaurant’s annual electrical usage.
Excess power is sold to a regional utility. The dam has generated business as well. “We’re in a remote area,” Singer said. “But people like to see our dam. It’s green energy. It’s where we should be going, because it helps to protect our fragile, damaged environment.”