Local dams being targeted for electricity

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A group working to harvest hyrdo-generated electricity from local dams has identified 11 dams that, if fitted with turbines, could pump an average of 1,169 kilowatts of power into the grid, enough to supply the average need of more than 300 homes.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation also is in the early stages of an effort to reap electricity from the Otis Reservoir Dam, and West Stockbridge is seeking an operating permit for its newly installed 9-kilowatt turbine in the Shaker Mill Pond Dam.

"It is significant in terms of what it can generate for local towns in renewable energy and funding," said Paul Deslauriers, executive director of Co-Act and a coordinator of the effort. "It's also about shifting consciousness regarding how we can generate electricity and serve our communities."

The push to take advantage of river flow on existing dams by installing hydroturbines was the subject of a symposium last month in which dam owners, engineers, town officials and state officials learned how the permitting process can comprise the majority of time frame and cost for a small hydro-power project.

But by bringing all concerned parties into the project from the beginning, including regulatory personnel, the cost and time involved can be significantly reduced. And with that in mind, the group has begun that process.

"From what I understand, this hasn't been done before," Deslauriers said. "We believe we now have a way to tap low-impact hydro in a collaborative way. We're trying to condense the process down from eight years to two years."

Since the symposium, a list of dams with potential for power harvesting has been boiled down to 11 local dams that, it is estimated, could be fitted with turbines with a total capacity of 1,169 kilowatts.

Part of the goal, Deslauriers added, is not only to install hydro turbines in some of the dams, but to improve the recreational uses and provide financial benefit to the communities.

According to Fred Szufnarowski, managing partner for New England engineering firm Essex Partnership, by bundling smaller and similarly situated hydro projects together, the cost of engineering studies and environmental impact studies can be greatly reduced.

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Dams along the same river or in nearby rivers tend to have similar hydrology, river flow data, topography, vegetation and ecology, he noted. So by bundling the data from some of the projects together as one project, time can also be saved.

And by working with permitting and regulatory officials from the beginning of the information gathering and engineering studies, potential problems can be identified and resolved early and any delays reduced or eliminated, Szufnarowski said.

"It used to be adversarial," he said. "But this way, we almost do it together. We bring them in and look for the win/win scenarios."

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Szufnarowski added that the dam owners can cut significant cost of a project by doing most of the leg work themselves.

"If these smaller projects are going to be done in our lifetime, this is the approach that will get it done," he said.

"This is our common resource, our common wealth and as a community we should take advantage of that," Deslauriers said.

The dam with the second highest energy generating potential, according to information provided by Deslauriers, is the dam outside the Willow Mill in Lee, which is owned by Onyx Specialty Papers Inc.

Onyx company officials say they are intrigued by the possibilities.

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"I will be very interested in continuing to have conversations about energy savings opportunities, especially since electricity is one of our highest costs," said Patricia Begrowicz, president of Onyx.

Meanwhile, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the single largest owner of dams in Western Massachusetts, went through a painstaking process of evaluating the structures for safety and hydro power potential.

According to Wendy Fox, spokes woman for DCR, recreation opportunities, flood control, and hydropower potential were among the issues considered.

As part of the evaluation, DCR worked with the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife and other stakeholders to help validate the results of DCR's study to have a balanced approach between renewable energy and protection of the environment.

The only Berkshire County dam determined to have hydro power potential was at the Otis Reservoir Dam.

"At this point, Otis is thought to be the most suitable for hydropower generation," Fox said.

DCR officials and agency consultants are further exploring the feasibility of hydropower at Otis, a process that is expected to take about a year.

To reach Scott Stafford: sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6241.


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