For a state which, in the past, has borrowed enthusiastically from progressive states (so identified before USA Today invented the now-well-known red-blue delineation) for exciting new expanded-government initiatives in regulation and control, it's enlightening to take similar note of a time when it hasn't: now.
In the 1960s, it was regional high school and vocational-ed districts from New York: in the 1970s it was rural septic-system design from Wisconsin; in the 1980s it was Statewide land-use planning control from Oregon; and in the 1990s it was innovative pair bonding from California, all of which found eager adopters in Vermont.
But now, in the late 2000s, another blue State, Washington, is encouraging multiple small-scale hydro-electric power stations, and Vermont, in the modern vernacular, doesn't want to go there. Case in point: the now-withdrawn proposed hydro station project in Middlebury on the falls of the Otter Creek. It raises two points, one historical and one contemporary.
Historical, or how a couple of Yalies brought electricity to northern New England: the corporate lore of multi-national engineering corporation EBASCO (the Electric Bond and Share Corporation) goes back to late-19th century New Haven, when Electrical Engineering was a new discipline at Yale and a couple of silver-spoon-in-mouth undergrads decided to make EE their major. After graduation they fanned out across small-town New England, pitching to every Board of Selectmen in a village with a dam-and-mill previously set up for manufacturing, their proposition for using some of that hydro power to generate electricity for municipal, local business, and residential use.
The engineering grads would design the system, oversee construction, and train local management in operation for a small fee, which would be more than covered by ratepayers' bills. When frugal Selectmen (back then, not now) declined for lack of funds to pay for the engineering and the construction, the Yalies had a quick answer: we don't need cash; just pay us in some of the high-dividend stock or bonds you'll have to issue, thus giving rise to the corporate name of their fledgling enterprise. By the early 1960s, when EBASCO branched out into urban planning and renewal and industrial park design, I signed on as an in-house architect, the corporation was, proportionally, as wealthy as Yale, endowment-wise, and it was that historical connection with, for example, Barre and Rutland, which got EBASCO hired to do city-planning work there and staffers like me to do the writing and drawing.
My bosses said to me that there wasn't a village in Vermont where EBASCO hadn't put in the hydroelectric, a couple of generations earlier, including, of course, Middlebury and Brandon.
Vestiges of those early setups remain in both towns. The selectmen then weren't as no oriented as the present cross-section of Vermont politicians (who don't at all share the pro-capital investment outlook which brought the railroads to the state in the mid-19th century, electricity to Middlebury in the early 20th century, or IBM to Essex Junction in the mid-20th century). Today's prevailing mindset is one of rejection (think OMYA or Wal-Mart) rather than welcome (think new-homestead property tax exemption for most of the 20th century, but decidedly not any more).
Vermont has become a state of no. The image, beyond its borders, of the state isn't any more one of frugal and laconic, innovative and free enterprise-motivated Yankees, but one of hostile zoning boards, compost-throwing public hearing participants, fleeing businesses and a shrinking young-adult labor force.
If the old icons of Vermont character were accurately captured in the forgotten mill, railroad, quarry and farm photos by Aldo Merusi, the new image icons might well be the fake stuffed sheep adorning pretend-grazing meadows near Woodstock, the building-supply retail outlet in Montpelier which has stood vacant since Grossman's left, and Home Depot chose not to fight through the permit process for a move-in-the affordable-housing opportunities which are easy for government-related-or connected applicants but not for private-sector developers, or a state government which proudly announced that it has just allocated taxpayer stimulus money for an Addison County artist's research into the "physical and performative qualities of fresh water"-presumably that does not include traversing a millrace and turbine to generate electrical power.
As for hydroelectric then and now: Vermont and Washington, I commend to readers' attention the half-page article in the Aug. 21 issue of the Wall Street Journal. The story described how small-scale (the contemporary equivalent of the Yalies' efforts a century ago) dam-and-generator plants are being welcomed, built, and soon operated in a blue state.
In Washington, the WSJ reports, 500 sites in the 5 to 10 megawatt output range have been identified, each capable of serving an average of 5,000 ratepayers.
Using that math, it would take about three dozen in Vermont to service the approximate 200,000 metered connections. And the Vermont-Yankee shutdown compost-throwers could have their wish.
My prediction: hydro power won't happen either, because the urge to no is even more powerful.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.