Editor’s note: An informal celebration of the life of Bill Scully will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, July 18, at the Park-McCullough House. This article provides a summary of his thinking on the future of energy in Vermont.
Bill Scully, who built two successful clean hydroelectric power plants — on the Walloomsac River at Papermill Village and on the Hoosic River at North Pownal — left an important legacy for Vermont: that hydropower is critical to the state’s energy policy.
He was convinced that neither solar nor wind power can be counted on for significant help in meeting long-term goals. He was especially dubious about solar, citing federal weather data that Sacramento has 3,608 hours of sunshine per year while Burlington gets only 2,295.
Based on his experience with the legislature and state agencies, Scully wrote two lengthy position papers that analyze the complex impact of the federal Clean Water Act. He concluded with recommendations for special long-range legislation needed to meet Vermont’s energy goals. His papers trace the history of the Clean Water Act, dating to the 1970s and the efforts of Senator Edmund Muskie and President Richard Nixon.
Scully was especially concerned that the CWA in Vermont does not recognize climate change. Nor, he said, does the CWA meet the policy need to address “the total environment.”
Here’s a key paragraph of Scully’s thinking: “Vermont yields staggeringly less solar production than Southern states using the same effort and equipment. Yet, Vermont has done little or no hydro development in the past 30 years, has limited wind resources, and forced decommissioning of the only nuclear plant. With this history and aside from fossil fuels, in-state utility-scale energy options are limited to solar. This has an unavoidable result of higher energy costs.”
In a section titled Powering Vermont, Scully stated the Green Mountain case for hydro: “The use of dams for the generation of power predates the State of Vermont. Vermont, as well as all of New England, provides an environment which favors hydroelectric redevelopment: high annual rainfall, low population density, and mountainous terrain.”
He wrote that the combination of these factors was instrumental in the United States exceeding Britain during the Industrial Revolution and emerging as the dominant world leader in industry.
He elaborated: “Villages and cities within the State are built on the waterways and near changes in river elevation. The mills and factories required the river as a power source, either mechanical or electrical. At least until the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was fully implemented and fossil fuels became common in electrical generation.”
Eventually, he continued, the mills were abandoned and there were no plans for reuse of the dams. “This power policy vacuum was further exacerbated by the decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant.” By proving that his two hydro plants detoxified the river water they utilized, he importantly exposed the myth that dams cause environmental harm.
Scully’s plea for new state legislation involves connecting the dots of existing laws along with government agencies that have overlapping jurisdictions, in a context of water quality standards, environmental protection, and climate change. These agencies involve the state Public Utility Commission, the state Agency of Natural Resources, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, among others.
He cited a specific date, Dec. 26, 2008, for what he called his epiphany on the subject: “I live in a town with several dams so why am I not driving an electric car powered by my back yard?” Since that time, he began to immerse himself in the process of “hydroelectric development, governance, and environmental stewardship.”
He continued: “I was so profoundly moved by this question that I have since spent tens of thousands of hours to trying to understand the matter. I have developed and benefited from relationships with developers, environmentalists, Vermont Agencies, the Vermont Legislature, and many others without whom I may never have been successful in creating a tangible answer to my question or in ever reaching an understanding of the issues.”
Scully received his bachelor’s degree from Bennington College in 2018. He credited his work with the College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action for helping him with “some helpful insight and language, and posed some beneficial questions.” He went on: “I now have the ability to fully articulate the intricacies and issues that have led to unintended consequences in water management in spite of everyone’s best intentions.”
He wrote that his position papers are “meant to be the first comprehensive summary of the administration of the Clean Water Act as it relates to twenty-first administration of riverine water resources.”
His documents end by expressing the hope: “This little state’s voice has frequently charted a course for others and can do so again.”