How one family is building a hydro-electric generating station, and electrifying the green movement
By Jeff Moore
Starting your own electric company is like building your own skyscraper. It's impossible, at least for an ordinary person. But Peter Holm '63 and his son, Anders '92, are ordinary people who are changing the rules of the game.
They're starting a hydroelectric power company in Vermont, using a waterfall to produce enough clean and renewable energy for 1,000 homes. In the process, they are changing the laws and clearing the way for a new generation of green entrepreneurs to develop small-scale power plants that can light up homes, schools and even small towns. And the biggest idea, the Holms say, is that better use of local resources can teach us how to change our lives.
"That's my hope," says Peter. "That's always been my driving force."
Peter's life changed a long time ago. He cuts his own wood to heat his home, located in the snowy country of Vermont, no less. He raises his own worms for composting. He's putting up a 112-foot windmill with 14-foot blades on his property. And when he saw an old building that was perfectly suited for a hydroelectric power plant, he wasn't about to let that potential go to waste, either.
His life, and that of the power plant, intersected when Peter bought an old brick mill in downtown Middlebury in the 1980s. His plan was to rent it out for commercial space, but he also knew he had acquired an essential part of the town's history. The mill overlooked Otter Creek, and a roaring waterfall that turned the first wheels of the town's industry-its woolen mills and stonecutters. Later, a turbine was added in 1890, creating the Middlebury Electric Company and the town's first electricity.
As the old mill's new owner, Peter could see the falls of Otter Creek were still in fine form. But the turbine and waterwheels were long gone, leaving just the crumbling framework of the retired hydroelectric power plant. Looking at the pieces that were still there, Peter could imagine how they all worked, and the old plant haunted him like a ghost.
"You look at the potential," he says. "To me, it's just such an incredible waste to watch that power go down the river, and not have it harnessed. I thought that when I bought the mill, and being a Swedish American, it just drives me nuts to see that potential wasted."
For years, he thought about putting the waterfall back to work, producing clean and renewable energy. "I would have done it to break even, but people just laughed at me."
Then came the events of September 11, 2001. "We were rattled to our collective core," says his son Anders. Both were struck by the realization that, in order to stop funneling money into dangerous corners of the world, as a nation, we would have to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. That would mean developing our own energy resources, and the ruins of the old hydroplant were right there, staring silently up at them. Suddenly, says Peter, "It was crazy not to do it."
But how? They weren't hydropower people. Both father and son studied pre-med at Augustana. They were doctors. And to restore the plant, they would have to use their own money, in their spare time. But, crazy or not, they were determined to take the plunge.
Turning on the lights in Middlebury
At first, their ambitions were small. Tinker a bit, and perhaps generate enough power to light the mill building. But the closer they looked, the more it became obvious that the waterfall could light up the whole neighborhood, just as it had in 1890. It was time, they said, "to rethink everything." They would not just restore the hydroplant; they would rebuild Middlebury Electric Company.
"But," says Peter, "the second we did that, we triggered the whole permitting process, which was very messy." The state of Vermont dealt with huge power companies, not small operators. Their path was blocked, unless they could push the state to rewrite the laws for smaller companies, like Middlebury Electric. It was an enormous headache, but they did it, changing Vermont law to streamline the permitting process for small hydropower plants. Theirs will be the first.
When all the permits are in place, the Holms are ready to install a high-efficiency 1,000-kilowatt S-turbine. The waterfall at the old mill will crank up enough electricity for about 1,000 homes, and that energy will be clean and carbon-free. (A coal-fired power plant of the same size would pump about 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.)
And, by feeding electricity into the power grid, the plant will generate about a million dollars a year in revenue. It makes so much money because it's not just clean, it's incredibly efficient. "Not a bad investment," says Anders. "That turned out to be a big part of it. It has to make sense from a financial standpoint, and it does."
In fact, it's turning out to be a winning proposition at every level. Local grade schoolers in Middlebury, including Anders' two young children, have begun learning about hydropower with class projects. So are students from Middlebury College and the University of Vermont, who take field trips to the old mill to study the Holms' project. Other riverfront towns are calling, inquiring about restoring or building their own hydropower plants, on their own, as the Holms did, as news of their success spreads across the state. That includes coverage from the news media, which means they're not just doctors anymore. They've become the "renewable energy family of Vermont."
"It is incredible. I can't believe it's going to happen," says the elder Holm. "The vast majority of it was Anders just bulling his way through it. He's doing the legwork, and it's become a passion for him. It's amazing how much energy he has, because he's got a full-time job as a head and neck surgeon, and he's still got time to do all this stuff."
"My dad started it," says Anders. "We plowed into this project and it's blossomed into something really much larger than we ever could have possibly imagined. But it's something we absolutely believe in. It's not just hydropower; it's wind, solar. We're looking into geothermal. We're just basically doing everything we can.
"I guess you could say thrifty Swedes can use common sense, and the natural resources we have around us."
Waste not, want not
No doubt, it's helpful to know the Holms are Swedish, with family roots that reach deep into the history of Augustana, which, after all, was founded by Swedish settlers in 1860. Peter figures about 70 members of his family have attended Augustana over the last century, including parents, grand-parents, and too many aunts, uncles and cousins to mention. "My maternal grandfather built the first tennis court at Augustana," says Peter. "He and his buddies, in 1903." Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, the legendary former president of Augustana, was a good friend and attended Peter's wedding. "I have such incredible memories of Augustana," Peter says.
The Holms' Swedish heritage also seems to be designed for the green movement, with strong connections to the natural world, simplicity and functionality. When you hear that both Peter and Anders cut their own wood to heat their homes, it makes it easy to recall Swedish settlers who carved their livelihood from the wilderness.
And now that Augustana is making a stronger commitment to the green movement, Peter and Anders see a stream of possibilities in the Mississippi River. Hydropower could light up Augustana and all of Rock Island, providing not only clean and renewable energy, but a hands-on laboratory for Augustana students to explore the field of green technology. "Middlebury College students are doing a phenomenal job up here, getting all excited about this, doing a lot of research for us," Peter says. "College kids can get an awful lot done. They love to be activists."
Anders agrees. In his own life, he was deeply influenced by two years of high school in Sweden, where he learned about the European model of energy conservation. Today Anders lives in a house where his family uses a fraction of the electricity his neighbors use. He uses solar, geothermal and strict conservation to minimize his impact. Even more than his father, it's Anders who may have found his destiny in the green movement.
"We'll see what happens," he says, "but if this really works well, and I can do it elsewhere, and support renewable energy, I'll have to rethink my medical career, to be honest with you."
As for Peter, he'll be very satisfied to see the old brick mill in a new light. The powerhouse with the new turbine will sit beneath a pedestrian bridge over Otter Creek with a beautiful patio on top. It'll be a good place to think about how we get our electricity, and what we're doing to our planet as we live our lives. "Things are different now," he says, "Everybody understands how these alternatives have to happen."
Jeff Moore is a free-lance writer in Rock Island, Ill.
From the headworks, water enters the penstock, a long tube that carries water to the turbine in the powerhouse. Here, the water passes through the turbine, turning its propeller-like blades. This kinetic energy, taken from the falling water, turns the shaft of the generator, and makes electricity. Transmission lines are connected from the generator to the grid to carry electricity to homes.