Seeking new life for an old North Bennington dam
Photo Gallery | Hydroelectric Power plant in North Bennington
NORTH BENNINGTON — Bill Scully doesn't think anything is impossible.
That's what many people told him and his wife about their idea to bring new life to the polluted former Vermont Tissue Mill on the Walloomsac River and establish a hydroelectric operation.
But now, that idea has become the second hydroelectric project commissioned in Vermont in the last 35 years.
"This site has become a model for hydro-development in the state," Scully, a North Bennington resident and entrepreneur, said Thursday during a tour of the property. "There are about 1,250 unused dams in the state, and between 300 and 400 that are the same size as this and are ready for development."
The Scullys and their partners, Armin Moehrle and Claus Maier, worked six years to make the vision a reality. Under a multi-phase, $2.5 million project, contamination has been cleaned up, the building has been renovated, the river's flow has been improved, and a hydroelectric system in the mill building started generating electricity on Sept. 15.
Two state-of-the-art generators and turbines, manufactured by German company Ossberger, make up a 360 kilowatt system which Scully says will generate 1.64 gigawatt hours of electricity annually. That's enough to power 211 average Vermont homes and avoid releasing some 650 tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year.
Local entities which have signed onto the net-metering group to purchase the power are the town of Bennington, Powers Market, Kevin's Sports Pub and Restaurant, Allegro Ristorante, the Village School of North Bennington, and Pangaea Restaurant, a North Bennington business that Scully owns.
The project also cleaned up contamination on the property, restored the flow of the river and created new recreation space for a park along the Walloomsac, Scully said.
He and Maria already have their first tenant signed on to lease part of the 12,000-square-foot mill building, which was built in 1887. Spirits of Old Bennington, a distillery recently founded by Ken Lorenz, will be housed in a 3,000-square-foot space.
The project's commissioning will be celebrated in a small ceremony this weekend.
The site was home to commercial operations beginning in 1790, predating the state's admission into the union by a year. It was home to the former Vermont Tissue Mill, a paper manufacturing and processing facility. The company ceased making paper in 1986 and, until it shuttered in 2006, cut paper purchased from and made elsewhere into sizes that customers ordered.
The idea came to Scully on Christmas of 2008 as he and Maria were driving along the Farmington River in Connecticut, returning from her mother's house. He said he was motivated because he wanted to change state energy policy.
"Someone was talking on the radio about oil prices reaching a record high," he remembers. "I had an epiphany and realized I couldn't sit idly by anymore while we're the only country that still debates the existence of climate change... We live in an old mill town with all these dams. I started looking around and this became the one."
His company, AEO, Inc. bought the property in 2009, taking ownership of the mill building, two dams and two other parcels on either side of Murphy Road. He and Maria then formed Zero Carbon, LLC to redevelop the mill. It took time, he said, because there was no mechanism in the state for issuing a license.
The property was a Brownfield site, meaning there was environmental contamination from polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and dioxin. Both substances built up in sediment around the property and behind the two dams, Scully said.
The Vermont Economic Development Authority issued a $683,278 energy loan to the project.
It took over 200 volunteers a few years to clean up the spaces on either side of Murphy Road and the covered Paper Mill Bridge. Scully said early on, they pulled 130 tires from the river, and two full 55-gallon trash bags were taken off the property each week.
Kayakers, fishermen and tourists regularly visit the parks and "self police" themselves, he said, and littering is nearly nonexistent.
And upgrades to the dams have increased water flow and make it possible for fish to pass upstream for the first time in over 200 years, Scully said.
Spirits of Old Bennington will start by distilling vodka and gin, Lorenz said, using electricity from the generator. His distillery application has been submitted to the state, he said, and equipment has already been delivered.
The rest of the building is still being renovated, Scully said. Until he finds a business to move in, he will use the space for storage for other ventures, including Pangea.
He said he will apply what he's learned about permitting and environmental cleanup from this project to one in Pownal. He and partner Dennis Candelora seek to install a hydroelectric operation on the town-owned dam that once powered the former Pownal Tannery Co.
A third project is in the early stages of development, he said.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.