2016-04-08 / Front Page

No painless option for dam issue

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Here’s the lesson from the last year or so in Kennebunk – if you really want to pack a meeting hall, advertise that it will be about the Mousam River dams.

An overflow crowd of more than 100 people stuffed a March 29 meeting of the Kennebunk Light and Power District (KLPD) Board of Trustees, held in selectmen’s chambers at town hall.

Similar crowds attended informational meetings on federal relicensing requirements for the Mousam River dams in March and November 2015. What made last week’s meeting notable, however, was that it was the first time trustees have weighed in publicly on the dam issue, which is expected to hit KLPD ratepayers hard, regardless of whether the power company renews its license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) or decides to tear down the dams.

KLPD has a March 2017 deadline to file an advance notice of intent to pursue FERC relicensing of its three 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.

Previously, KLPD trustees have held their tongues on the issue, limiting themselves at the public informational sessions and their regular meetings to questions for Portland engineering firm Wright- Pierce, which has studied the dams and prepared a 90-page draft report that details KLPD’s four options:

 Pursuing a new license for all three dams

 Tear down all three dams

 Tear down one or two dams

Try for an exemption to FERC’s normal licensing requirements, an arduous and expensive task that could take as long as five years and $16.9 million, given the presumed need to build fish ladders at all three dams.

The Wright-Pierce report initially released last fall was updated and posted online the week before the March 29 meeting, hence the reason for it. According to Wright-Pierce Senior Vice President John Edgerton, the net cost for relicensing the dams should run to between $2.8 million and $6.4 million, when factoring out revenues from the dams during and after the relicensing period, but also accounting for a projected 2 percent inflation rate and 3 percent increase in energy prices.

Assuming a 3.1 percent interest rate on a $4 million bond, paid back over 20 years at a rate of about $270,000 per year, Edgerton said the average KLPD customer using 750 kilowatt hours per month, would pay an extra $2 per month or $24 per year.

That, said Edgerton, was a “reasonable and uniformly conservative assumption” on costs.

But while that may seem nominal, given the scope of the project, and the fact that KLPD only generates about 1.5 percent of the power it sends to its 6,500 customers from the dams, other factors have been at play.

Many environmental groups, including Maine Rivers and the Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers Alliance, have stumped for restoration of the Mousam to its natural pattern, while many local residents, including those who live along the river, have questioned what it might be reduced to after the dams are breeched, and what that might do to property values.

“I think we all know at this point that this is a pretty emotional and complex topic we are dealing with,” KLPD Chairman Jonathan “Jay” Kilbourn said. “There’s a lot of strongly held views, hopes, fears, feelings. There are facts circulating around town and there are also rumors circulating around town.”

Also of concern is that power-generating equipment at the Kesslen and Dane Perkins dams is at least 75 years old and deemed by Wright-Piece to be “operable, but inefficient.”

Additionally, Edgerton noted that water flow down the Mousam only spills over the top of the dams at a few times of the year. That means there is not enough water available to fill any required fish ladders and power the dam generators to full capacity, a concern given the limited use KLPD gets from the dams as it is. “So, you’re basically saying the fish ladders could potential reduce our flow through the turbines to zero,” said KLPD board member Wayne Berry.

“I don’t know if it would be to zero,” Edgerton said.

“Well, if you’re using the water to get the fish downstream, you can’t use that same water to generate electricity,” Berry said.

“Right,” Edgerton said. “Every year has different hydrologic characteristics, but at any time at which the dams are not spilling, you’re going to be taking water for the fish passages away from the turbines.”

Trustees made no decisions at the March 29 meeting, but based on their conversations, two of the four options appeared to come off the table entirely, while continuing to use the dams seemed in doubt.

The presumably axed options include trying to get an exemption to the usual licensing process.

That option is predicted by Wright- Pierce to carry a net cost of $2.1 million. However, KLPD General Manger Todd Shea said that course might be “financially risky” because FERC could demand a so-called “re-opener” clause in the contract that would allow federal or state agencies to suspend the exemption that would allow KLPD to run the dams as is at any time it feels environmental enhancements (i.e. fish ladders) are warranted.

Wright-Pierce did not update its report with a ratepayer cost for this option, not did it do so for the option seeking a licensing exemption to keep running the Kesslen dam, while tearing out its two upstream sisters.

Edgerton said there is no precedence for this option, making it sound like an untenable choice. Kilbourn and Berry agreed it seems fraught with legal and financial question marks.

“This is a long shot,” Kilbourn said. “It’s not a very enticing pathway with the uncertainties and costs and questionable potential.”

Finally, surrendering the FERC license and tearing down the dams was predicted to be the least costly option, pegged at a net cost of $1.85 million.

Edgerton said that would require a $2.5 million bond, equating to annual payments of $172,871 and an annual hike of $15.55 to ratepayers.

A parade of residents and other interested parties helped stretch the meeting out to more than three hours, even when limited to just three minutes each of talk time. Most of those comments ran parallel to arguments made at the previous informational meetings.

Meanwhile, with removal of the dams appearing more likely, 196 supporters had signed on as of Monday to a Save the Mousam Dams petition on change.org.

Shea said KLPD trustees are considering putting the question to a nonbinding straw poll vote at the annual town meeting in June. Town Clerk Merton Brown has said wording for any such warrant article would have to be submitted to him by April 27 to make the ballot.

KLPD meet next on April 27, but have said they will not be discussing the Mousam dams at that session. Instead, they are slated to weigh in on the issue again at their May 11 meeting, which also will be held at town hall.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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