Bill Scully '94's Bennington hydro project has global reach Bill Scully ’94 has built restaurants, re-energized a store, and singlehandedly revitalized North Bennington. Now he’s poised to deliver electricity in a way that could, well, change the world.
“You gotta hate yourself a little to be this busy,” laughs Scully, a man who, if that were true, would have to be the most self-loathing guy on the planet. Think we’re kidding? In the last 18 years—since Scully left the College—he has: worked as a dishwasher; been a student of sculpture and architecture; assisted well-known artists such as Jenny Holzer and Maria Westerlund- Roosen; apprenticed at a local café; graduated to executive chef at the well-known Cambridge Hotel; opened the popular, award-winning restaurant, Pangaea, in North Bennington; enlarged it with Pangaea Lounge; bought and revamped the much-loved Powers Market across the street; launched a second restaurant, Allegro, in downtown Bennington; returned to the College as its director of dining services, which oversees not only the food for the whole campus but its numerous events as well; and, oh yes, took ownership of a dilapidated, vacant paper mill, in order to orchestrate a hydroelectric project that is likely to become the poster project for green energy across Vermont and possibly the country.
“I like to joke that in 18 years, I’ve moved two blocks…but that’s all I needed.”
Scully is a force, one whose diversity in his résumé is matched only by an unusual sincerity and humility of purpose. Each project he undertakes has, at its core, a deep desire to learn, to understand, and to do good. He remains, in the best sense, a consummate student. Take this latest power plant idea:
“I guess it started when I was talking with Liz [Coleman] in 2008,” he recalls. “I think we were having a glass of wine at Pangaea, and she basically said to me that she felt she and her peers had spent their lives educating an entire generation to disbelieve in government. It upset her, and it moved me. I decided right then that this conversation—what became The Democracy Project and now CAPA—was one I needed to be a part of.”
Scully, who had for years been wooed to come back to the College in a culinary capacity, finally agreed. But the opportunity for him was much more than food related. “I was starving to be part of the Bennington conversation again.”
As it turns out, for Scully the “Bennington conversation” did not stop at the campus edge. One year later, while driving home from his in-laws’, the chef tuned into an NPR report that was discussing the skyrocketing price of oil. “I had an epiphany,” he says. “We live in a mill town in Bennington; why aren’t we using water and gravity to naturally power this place? By noon the next day, I had set up an e-mail account to collect information on hydropower. I began looking at potential sites, and I started educating myself on the physics of this natural resource.”
But like everything Scully does, playing the student—whether in food, business, or green power—never stays a theoretical exercise for long. In 2009, he purchased the former, and very ramshackle, Vermont Tissue Mill, which sits above the Walloomsac River in Bennington, with the intention of restoring it as a hydroelectric power plant. What some might have seen as folly, he saw as the future.
“For a state that prides itself on being so green, it had been more than 25 years since Vermont had licensed hydro anywhere. It had become such a divisive issue that even though 97 percent of residents in Vermont supported it, no bill ever came out of committee because the fishing lobby, and key officials in government who supported them, would block it. I mean, it was so bad that neither side would even talk to each other.”
Many had come before Scully and given up, assuming their dream of using Vermont’s water sources to create a carbon negative —not just neutral, but negative—power supply was unattainable.
“Not giving up; well, I think that’s a classic Bennington quality,” Scully says. “When I want something, I’m not going to stop.” In pure CAPA form, he continues, “It became my goal to get everyone to the table.” And so he began the arduous process of bringing together the fishing lobby, which believed building dams would ruin profitable ecosystems, and local environmentalists, for whom green energy was a sacred cow.
“Look at it this way: The vast majority of the electricity used in Vermont is generated by two sources, Hydro Quebec and Vermont Yankee. Neither are Vermont companies. Less than 15 percent of Vermont’s electricity is generated by Vermont companies. That’s 85 percent of our energy dollars going out of the country when we’re the ones who own the natural resources. Does that make any sense?”
After months of stops and starts, visits to the Vermont legislature, promising speeches and daunting conversations, and a curious blend of activist dedication and Zen detachment, Scully and his team got the go-ahead to pursue hydro in Bennington. Although there are still hoops to jump—a permit from the Federal Regulatory Commission, not to mention the renovation on the mill itself—when all is said and done, Scully’s plant will generate 1.3 million kilowatt hours per year. With a standard home requiring 12,000 kilowatt hours per year, that equals more than 105 homes every year powered by nothing more than water and gravity.
“I like to tell people that this particular paper mill predates even the state of Vermont, and in fact, the document outlawing slavery was drafted on the paper this mill produced. So, compared to that, this doesn’t feel that revolutionary.”
And yet it is. Not only for those 105 homes but because the ultimate significance of Scully’s mill might just be how easily it becomes the prototype for the next generation of green energy.
Would that be enough for the man to take a rest?
“I guess we’re all motivated by some deep-seated psychosis,” he says. “I told my wife recently that mine goes all the way back to my first year at Bennington. My friend Andy, who lived with me and my mother, and who always wanted better for me than I wanted for myself, told me before I left for school, ‘If you screw this up, don’t come home.’ Six months later, when I was at school, he drowned in an accident. So maybe that’s why I never think I’m done. I am still trying to fulfill a promise to an old friend. I like to keep filling my head with possibilities.”