2015-10-16 / Front Page

Dam report is released

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Following months of internal study, the Kennebunk Light and Power District has released a report on its option for three dams it owns on the Mousam River.

The Kesslen Dam, located in downtown Kennebunk at Route 1, and its upstream sisters, Twine Mill and Dane Perkins dams, are due for federal relicensing in 2022. However, a March 2017 deadline looms for a final decision on whether to pursue that option, or else remove one or more of the dams.

According to Executive Director Todd Shea, the power company’s board of trustees has released the 90-page draft report in hopes of gaining public feedback on the four options on the table.

A public meeting will be held Nov. 16 to gauge public sentiment on the options and the report was published on the power district’s website a full month in advance, in part because the report is far from scintillating reading.

“For anyone who is looking for a way to fall asleep at night, jump right into that report,” said Shea, with a laugh. “I had one board member tell me he fell asleep twice reading it and had to go back three pages each time to remember where he stopped remembering what he read.”

Part of the problem, Shea says, is that all of the available options are costly. Meanwhile, the engineering firm that prepared the estimates, Portland based Wright Pierce, could only ballpark most of the numbers, because the state and federal agencies involved won’t come clean with their final requirements per option until after the Kennebunk Light and Power District decides which way it is going to go.

“Clearly, that presents a challenge,” Shea said.

Seeking a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for all three dam, is estimated to cost between $8.8 million and $11.7 million, given the need to construct fish passages, along with other mandates.

“The difference is, on the low end, nobody challenges what we want to do, versus on the high end, lots of litigation and extra requirements,” Shea said.

The dams produce about 1.5 percent of the power used by the power district’s customers and discounting expected revenues, the final cost of relicensing is expected to run between $1.9 million and $4.7 million.

Another option is to seek a license exemption from FERC. The cost of that route is estimated at $9.2 million, or $1.6 million minus projected revenues.

A third option would be to tear down the two upstream dams, but keep Kesslen, while seeking to remove it from further federal oversight. That’s a $4.4 million proposition, which rings in at $1.6 million after accounting for remaining revenue.

Finally, the least costly option is to surrender the FERC licenses and tear down the dams, a project expected to cost $2.3 million, or $1.5 million at “net present worth” when factoring out “equivalent revenues.”

“I don’t want to tip the scales, because the board hasn’t decided, but right now it looks like it will be a hybrid of some of the plans,” Shea said. “They’re now digesting these latest numbers. We’re looking for public input so it will help the board to know what the pulse of the public is.

“I think the board’s opinion is, ‘Whatever is in the best interests of the ratepayers,’ but some of these are very, very expensive propositions,” Shea said. “The overarching ideal in all of this is to be effective to the environment and cost effective to the economy. That’s tough to pin down.”

But part of what’s at play is a price tag beyond the simple mathematics of the dams themselves. Although environmentalists have been largely, and vocally, behind tearing out the dams, many residents are concerned about how that will change both the profile of the river, and their abutting property values.

“We have heard there is a sense of place created by the Kesslen Dam, and the recreational use would likely change,” Shea said. “The ability to use boats would likely end and the only options would be canoeing and kayaking.”

Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking the health of local waterways, which has closely monitored the dam debate since 2013, agrees.

“On a basic level, I’m glad they are doing their homework and letting people know they are looking at their options,” she said. “It’s a long report and there are angles I wouldn’t agree with, or would think of differently, but on the whole I’m happy they’ve done it and that they’re willing to take public input on it.

“One thing that was remarkable to me was that they noted how ancient the machinery is at the Kesslen and Twine Mill dams. It’s no surprise then that making the hydropower operation economical would be a tremendously difficult and expensive undertaking.”

Hudson also says she doubts the possibility of removing one or more of the dams from federal oversight would play out as hoped.

“I think on further investigation they’ll find that’s not viable,” Hudson said. “It concerns me that they may have gotten bad advice on that option.”

Kennebunk Light and Power was founded as a municipal electric company in 1893 in order to help the struggling mill by buying excess power, using it to provide streetlights in town. It became an independent entity in 1951 and converted the dams from wood and timber to concrete in 1954. By that time the company was providing electricity to homes and businesses in most of Kennebunk, as well as to portions of Arundel, Lyman and Wells.

When Maine deregulated the electric utilities in 2000, it forced giants like Central Maine Power to become carriers only and divest themselves of all power generating capabilities. But small “public power systems” like Kennebunk Light and Power, which has just 6,599 customers, were allowed to continue making power.

Still, most of what the company does is transmit power, buying it on the market and transmitting it to local customers.

However, it is looking at other options for generating power beyond its traditional method.

According to Shea, the power district’s board is only two or three weeks away from finalizing a deal to build a 3.7-megawatt solar array at 12-14 acres of an old airfield, on property owned by the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport Wells Water District, at its Brach Brook watershed near the Wells town line.

“We’re just working on the legalese,” Shea said.

The basic concepts call on NextEra Energy to lease the land from the water district and construct the $9 million solar array at not cost to Kennebunk Light and Power, which would then enter into a power purchase agreement to buy power from NextEra for 25 years, at which point it would take ownership of the equipment.

“We’re just trying to structure it right now so there is some type of ownership all the way through, to minimize the tax ramifications for us,” Shea said.

The site would reportedly generate 5.5 million kilowatt hours of energy per year.

“Whatever we do, no matter what the decision is on the dams, the board is looking for ways to increase out renewable energy that we provide for our customers,” Shea said.

“That sounds very exciting,” Landis said. “I think finding sources of power that are truly green will be of great interest to the entire community. The problem with these old hydro facilities is that they really are not at all environmentally friendly.”

Still, before talk of solar power gets serious, Kennebunk Light and Power needs to decide if it will stay in or get out of water power. That will likely to be a debate that’s bound to get heated before all is said and done.

“I think it’s important for all of us to take the time to think through the various issues, because they are complicated technically, and, for a lot of people, they are complicated emotionally.”

Public meeting

The Kennebunk Light and Power District has scheduled a public meeting to take comment on its recently released 90-page report in its alternatives for relicensing, or not, its three dams on the Mousam River. That meeting will start at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 16, in the auditorium at Kennebunk Town Hall. The report is available for review on the district website, klpd.org.

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