2015-11-20 / Front Page

Fate of Mousam dams remains uncertain

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Residents at a public hearing held Monday, Nov. 16, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium, react when asked who among them are ratepayers of Kennebunk Light and Power District. The hearing gathered public feedback regarding the fate of three power district dams on the Mousam River, in light of a deadline to file for federal relicensing, (Duke Harrington photo) Residents at a public hearing held Monday, Nov. 16, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium, react when asked who among them are ratepayers of Kennebunk Light and Power District. The hearing gathered public feedback regarding the fate of three power district dams on the Mousam River, in light of a deadline to file for federal relicensing, (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — If one thing is certain about the future of the dams along the Mousam River, it’s that nobody is really certain what the future holds for the dams along the Mousam River.

On Monday, about 140 people packed Town Hall to sound off about an internal study recently released by the Kennebunk Light and Power District. That 90-page draft report details the district’s options as it faces a March 2017 federal deadline to file an advance notice of intent to pursue relicensing through the Federal Energy Regulator Commission of its three river dams – the Kesslen Dam, located in downtown Kennebunk at Route 1, and its upstream sisters, known as the Twine Mill and Dane Perkins dams. All are due for federal relicensing in 2022.


Garrett Erickson Harris, a seventh-grader in Matthew Coleman’s global studies class at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, addresses a crowd of more than 140 people on the future of the Mousam River dams owned and operated by the Kennebunk Light and Power District, during a public hearing held Monday, Nov. 16, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium. (Duke Harrington photo) Garrett Erickson Harris, a seventh-grader in Matthew Coleman’s global studies class at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, addresses a crowd of more than 140 people on the future of the Mousam River dams owned and operated by the Kennebunk Light and Power District, during a public hearing held Monday, Nov. 16, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium. (Duke Harrington photo) When KLP Executive Director Todd Shea asked audience members to indicate if they were customers of the power district, about 90 percent of all hands in the room raised, an indication that interest in the dams is broad, but shallow, not unlike the Mousam itself.

The reason for ratepayer concern is obvious – they’ll beat the brunt of the cost to either relicense the dams, or tear them out. Either option will be expensive.

Cost estimates prepared by Portland engineering firm Wright Pierce are only ballpark guesses, in part because the state and federal agencies with jurisdiction over the dams, and the river, won’t reveal their final requirements, including what types of fish passages, if any, will be required should the dams remain, until after KLP decides if it wants the dams to remain.

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

KLP 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 KLP, which has just 6,599 customers, were allowed to continue making power.

Seeking a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for all three dams is expected to cost between $8.8 million and $11.7 million. The dams produce about 1.5 percent of the power used by KLP 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.

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.”

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.

Both viewpoints were given fairly equal play at Monday’s meeting and, while some attendees began to challenge each other toward the end of the 2.5-hour Q&A session, the balance of the meeting was marked by general civility. Speakers both for and against removal of the dams were met with polite applause from the crowd.

“I think the report KLP put together did a good job of trying to assess its alternatives and I think people hit on a lot of great topics regarding those alternatives tonight,” said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking the health of local waterways, after the meeting.

“There’s always going to be uncertainty and people are always going to have emotion, and it takes time to work through those,” Hudson said. “It does help that the alternative that I think bodes best for the future is also the cheapest, but I thought it was wonderful to hear what people had to say on all sides tonight and I’m very inspired by it.

“I’m pleased that people were as civil as they were during the discussion and totally psyched that some of the speakers were seventh-graders,” Hudson said. “People should listen to the kids. This is their river, their community, that they are going to have to live with whatever decision is made here a lot longer than the rest of us.”

“We’re going to consider everything that was raised here tonight,” said Jonathan “Jay” Kilbourn, president of the KLP Board of Trustees. “The whole reason we are conducting these meetings is to try and get as much feedback form the public and from the ratepayers as possible.”

On that note, Kilbourn took the microphone after the first two speakers of the evening to head off suspicion trustees might have an endgame already in mind, and are only going through the motions of soliciting public feedback.

“We hired an engineering firm to help us do a very scientific and impartial study,” he said. “Speak your minds by all means, but I just want you to know there has not been an attempt on the part of the board to slant this information. What we have tried to do is get the facts so we really can have a good discussion.”

After the meeting, Kilbourn said he and other board members “tried to listen to residents and ratepayers first.”

“I was heartened by the fact there were a lot of people in the room tonight,” he said. “I think it’s important that we continue to listen. The board takes this comment period very seriously. We are very interested in hearing what people have to say.”

Shea said KLP trustees will continue to accept public comment through the end of the month. However, at the urging of Kennebunk Town Manager Barry Tibbetts and Sharon Staz, KLP’s longtime general manager who retired this past spring, trustees held an impromptu vote and decided to take comment at least through their Dec. 9 meeting.

That session could be interesting as Shea has said he hopes to present trustees that night with a proposal to build a 3.7-megawatt solar array on an old airfield now owned by the Kennebunk Kennebunkport Wells Water District, at its Brach Brook watershed near the Wells town line.

The basic concepts calls on NextEra Energy to lease the land from the water district and construct the $9 million solar array at no cost to KLP, 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. The site would reportedly generate 5.5 million kilowatt hours of energy per year.

However, Kilbourn said a decision on that project has no bearing on the fate of the dams.

“They’re not interrelated at all,” he said.

The recent alternatives report has been repeatedly referred to as a draft, and at least one new iteration is expected to come over the winter, which Shea has said will incorporate public comment, both in terms of addressing public concern and answering questions raised. In particular, the next draft will contain more information on how a change on the river profile, should one or more of the dams be removed, might affect abutting property values.

“We knew that we didn’t have enough documentation in that area, and we are working to get it,” he said.

Kilbourn said KLP Trustees will decide by this spring, potentially as soon as sometime in March.

“We are under a deadline and there’s a lot of work to be done between here and there,” he said.

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