Monday January 7, 2013

BENNINGTON -- With slight revisions not expected to complicate matters, Bennington town officials approved a net metering agreement to buy credits from a future local renewable energy source. The agreement doesn't have a financial implication one way or the other; rather, it's more a statement of support for the effort already underway at the former Vermont Tissue Paper site in North Bennington, which will soon be producing power under the name Carbon Zero, LLC.

"It's essentially a pass-through," Zoning Administrator Dan Monks told Select Board members Saturday. With the board's conditional approval, the town became a member of the hydroelectric project's "net metering group."

The group is one method of producing hydro power under state law, according to project developer William Scully, who bought the former mill property with his wife, Maria, for hydro development purposes in 2009. Other stakeholders already signed on for local juice include Powers Market and Allegro Restaurant, and also Pangaea Restaurant, the North Bennington eatery owned and operated by Scully.

Local municipalities and businesses are being targeted for the group, and offers have gone out to Bennington College and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. Scully said he would be meeting with North Bennington village officials this Tuesday, and he likened the resulting group to an "energy co-op."

"(We're) trying to take an old site that wasn't really doing anything," Scully said, "try to bring the building back ... as an occupied space (and) come up with a renewable energy source."

The existing dam (there are actually two) at the Paper Mill Village Covered Bridge hasn't produced power since 1958, but Scully said by telephone Sunday that work could start soon to get the project operational by late summer to early fall. A comment period for a federal license ends Jan. 17.

The project will use a 360-kilowatt capacity generator, resulting in estimated annual power production of 1.454 gigawatts given river flow.

Because of the site's unique river channels, the future hydro project is being designed to improve water quality and fish habitat. "We sat down with ... (various permitting agencies and) Vermont Fish & Wildlife, and we asked: ‘What do you want?'" Scully said the hope was to serve as a model for future hydro projects, which can often face opposition on environmental grounds. "It's going to (create) stronger fisheries," he said, through work to a new permanent reach for fish.

An earlier agreement with the town of Bennington will also allow public safety officials to open a flood gate as a safety measure in a state of emergency. (Carbon Zero would never have that authority itself.)

The property was previously designated a Brownfields site because of industrial pollutants including dioxin and PCBs, which have since been cleaned up to residential standards, allowing the former mill building to someday be converted into dual industrial/residential use.

Scully said hydro was the sole renewable power source not subsidized under Vermont state law. "We don't make our own energy" in Vermont, he said. "I just think it's time we started making our own energy."

Follow @Zeke_Wright on Twitter or email ewright@benningtonbanner.com