Bethel Hydro Plant Gets Stimulus Grant

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Front Page / Oct. 29, 2009 1:58pm EDT

By M.D. Drysdale


John Durfee at Bethel Mills in Bethel shows off the electric generator in the 200-year-old dam site that generates electricity to power their business; the extra juice is purchased by CVPS. (Herald / Tim Calabro)John Durfee at Bethel Mills in Bethel shows off the electric generator in the 200-year-old dam site that generates electricity to power their business; the extra juice is purchased by CVPS. (Herald / Tim Calabro)Federal stimulus funds will stimulate increased generation of green electric power from the Third Branch of the White River.

A grant of $250,000 to modernize the historic Bethel Mills hydro-electric installation was announced last week by the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund board.

The grant was one of nine large scale systems funded in an award of $3.1 million in funds from federal stimulus funds dedicate to renewable energy projects.

The stimulus money will help Bethel Mills undertake a $1.2 million modernization project that should increase electric production by 50%, according to Lang Durfee of Bethel Mills.

The river, just underneath the Church Street bridge in Bethel, has been dammed “forever” for industrial purposes, at least since 1781, according to Durfee. It was then that Bethel Mills—one of Vermont’s oldest companies—established a grist mill and sawmill with the power from the dam.

A succession of log dams were swept away for good, however, by the 1927 flood, which also scoured the river bottom and destroyed the mills themselves.

In 1940, Raymond Durfee, Lang’s grandfather, turned his attention once again to the dam site.

“He was just a genius,” Lang reflected this week. “He assembled parts from all over New England” and built the current concrete dam, with a hydro-electric plant.

This was all before the time of heavy equipment, pointed out Lang’s father John Durfee. That meant hours with shovels, concrete mixed in single small batches, and thousands of wheelbarrow trips with the mix to the dam. John Durfee, at about age 15, was a member of the wheelbarrow brigade.

Some Hobby!

In fact, both Lang and John refer to the dam and the hydro project as a “family hobby” rather than a business. Raymond died in 1980, but John’s offices both in the powerhouse and at the Bethel Mills lumberyard are filled with mementoes and photos, and there’s a big scrapbook full of photos of the hydro plant and dam at different stages.

The dam was always intended, Lang emphasized, simply to provide electric power and independence for Bethel Mills. “It was never a money-maker,” he said.

Nevertheless, CVPS approached the Durfees shortly after the dam was built with a proposal to buy extra electricity, and for the last 60 years it has been doing so. The rate it pays, however, is just 3-5 cents per KWH, nowhere near the 12 cents (or even up to 30 cents) per KWH that some suppliers receive under special incentive programs, Lang Durfee said.

Currently, Bethel Mills sells only a small percentage of its power to the electric company, but most of the increased generation resulting from the current project could be sold, he said. He estimates that the project could have a 20-year payback, depending on the future of electric rates.

Modernization Project

Planned upgrades are:

• Replacing the older of the two turbines in the powerhouse. This alone costs $250,000.

• Replacing a wooden dam extender that increases the height of the water head by about 30 inches. The extender is engineered to collapse whenever the water gets too high, and currently it costs about $2000 every time it must be rebuilt. Most recently, the extender collapsed after Saturdays big rain.

The new extender will be an “inflatable dam,” actually a big balloon stretching across the top of the regular dam. It can be programmed to deflate by itself whenever the water flow is high; and then it can be pumped right back up.

• A double intake gate for the water that is diverted into the turbines. Currently screen on the one gate regularly clogs up with debris and has to be cleaned by scuba-divers. An impervious gate placed just in front of the screen could allow operators to keep the water away from the screen so that it could be cleaned more regularly without going underwater.

This will also increase efficiency, Lang Durfee explained, since a blocked screen increases the turbulence of the water that goes into the turbine, which reduces its efficiency.

• A fish ladder to allow fish to go around the dam while swimming downstream.

Last week’s $3.1 million in grants from the Clean Energy Development Fund are the first portion of the $22 million that Vermont received from the stimulus program for energy purposes.

The Town of Randolph also received $41,300 for further study of the proposed wood-heating district.

Norwich also received $150,000 for a “community energy project.”

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