Commentary: It’s time to rethink the Wilder Dam

Trans Canada Power Station at the Wilder Dam in Wilder, Vt. Friday, October 9, 2015. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Trans Canada Power Station at the Wilder Dam in Wilder, Vt. Friday, October 9, 2015. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By CHET CLEM

For the Valley News

Published: 06-18-2023 7:24 PM

The recent Valley News op-ed (“Permitting reform can aid renewable energy”) about transmission of Quebec hydroelectricity, represents an ongoing paradigm shift where environmentalists and energy producers are working together toward mutually beneficial goals to shift our energy infrastructure to renewables.

But, there’s an opportunity right here in the Upper Valley for a collaborative approach around hydropower relicensing that could achieve great community benefits. The problem is, the host communities of Lebanon and Hartford are about to miss the boat, and once that water is over the dam it will be decades before there’s another chance.

The Wilder Dam that stretches from New Hampshire to Vermont at the former site of the Lower Falls on the Connecticut River is a darn good dam in the scheme of things. It had fish passage installed in the 1980s, it serves critical flood-control and power-generation purposes, and it plays a key role in the New England electrical grid. It’s equivalent to many, many acres of solar panels, it can generate power 24/7, and the upstream reservoir serves as a big battery to store future energy for when its needed.

For the past decade, groups like the Connecticut River Conservancy have been working with the dam owner to balance stakeholder interests and environmental impacts with the generation of critical clean energy. The run-of-river operating scheme now proposed will reduce fluctuations in water-levels in favor of more consistent power generation and less ecological impact.

That’s the plan the dam’s owner submitted this June in their final application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) for a new 30-to-50-year license to generate power from the Connecticut River. But while the wealthy up-stream communities are set to get better erosion controls for their waterfront properties, Lebanon and Hartford are about to be left out.

It would be a dam shame for Lebanon and Hartford not to get at least recreational improvements from the dam that connects them, and generates power from the river that— as a navigable waterway — every citizen has an ownership stake in.

The clunky FERC process is a balancing act between seemingly competing interests, but there are a number of comparable, collaborative approaches that apply here, too. The Penobscot River Restoration Project in Maine is just one New England example, and Dartmouth-grad Dan Reicher at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment has been documenting many more via his “Uncommon Dialogue on Hydropower, River Restoration, and Public Safety.”

Almost 20 years ago I wrote my college thesis on hydroelectric dam relicensing as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for environmental, recreational and economic revitalization in the surrounding communities. (It was also a great excuse to go fishing). Out of that curiosity, I’ve been closely monitoring the FERC relicensing process of the Wilder Dam for over a decade, especially as it relates to our River Park project just downstream.

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As a green developer, Lyme Properties has been hoping to power our project off this local, renewable energy source, and Dartmouth and DHMC could do the same. It’s not as easy as running a long extension cord from the dam, but the recent launch of Lebanon Community Power (thanks to the efforts of Lebanon Assistant Mayor Clifton Below) is a crucial, enabling step in the right direction.

Power line corridors also serve double-duty as trail corridors, and smart partnerships with local experts like the Upper Valley Trails Alliance and federal programs like the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance program already underway in West Lebanon, can help transform these corridors into accessible and equitable alternative transportation routes that get people out of cars and onto their feet, bikes, or e-bikes.

That’s the vision for the West Lebanon Greenway, and the City of Lebanon is now investigating the possible path to connect from the Mascoma River Greenway via Westboro Yard and River Park, to Wilder Dam and Sachem Village, and to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and beyond. Visit www.westleb.org/greenway to learn more.

The FERC process is an opportunity to ensure the access and funding necessary to achieve these goals. Arounding-error’s worth of revenue from the Wilder Dam’s annual operation could have transformative impacts if invested in these recreational improvements in the host communities over the decades-long duration of the license. In theory, if the power generated at Wilder is used locally it limits the loss-factor of energy transmission, monetizing that efficiency for the dam owner.

Vermont and New Hampshire split the cost to build the Wilder Dam back in the 1940s, along with the Bellows Falls and Vernon dams downstream. The dams were eventually privatized and have changed hands several times since. In Vermont, Green Mountain Power continues to be an innovative leader on renewable energy and has already signed up to put this local hydropower to use in the Vermont grid.

In New Hampshire, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster continues to be a leading advocate for innovative infrastructure solutions, having proposed the bipartisan 21st Century Dams Act as part of the Biden Administration’s unprecedented investment in American Infrastructure. Her leadership alongside Sen. Hassan, Sen. Shaheen, Rep. Pappas, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have brought millions of new investment into the state.

Now is the time for our local governments to be the squeaky wheel to get the federal grease to make change happen. The path to renewable energy and recreational benefits is there, but Lebanon and Hartford have to pay attention and make sure they don’t get lost.

Chet Clem is president of Lyme Properties, on the board of Upper Valley Trails Alliance and the Granite Outdoor Alliance, and was formerly the Norwich representative on the Connecticut River Joint Commission.