Governor stands for dams
KENNEBUNK — The long-awaited joint informational meeting between Kennebunk selectmen and Kennebunk Light and Power District trustees over the fate of the three Mousam River dams in town had one unexpected guest — Gov. Paul LePage.
‘We had no idea he was going to be here,” said Adam Cote, an attorney for the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum, hired by the two boards to act as facilitator.
About 100 people attended the session, held Tuesday night, Jan. 17, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium. The meeting began with a review of the three dams, all originally built to power adjoining factors, now long defunct.
KLPD was founded as a municipal electric company in 1893 in order to help the struggling Kesslen Mill adjacent to Route 1 by buying excess power and using it to illuminate downtown streets. KLPD 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 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” such as KLPD, which has just 6,599 customers, were allowed to continue making power.
Until recently, the dams produced about 1.5 percent of the power used by KLPD customers. The rest is purchased by the district off the grid.
However, faced with the high cost of relicensing the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — a five-year process that could cost nearly $12 million when accounting for a presumed requirement to install fish ladders — the KLPD trustees have wrangled for the last couple of years on how to proceed.
While the current licenses last until 2022, the long lead time to navigate the requisite red tape means KLPD must notify FERC my March whether it will apply for a new license.
That much was made known last summer. On June 15, KLP trustees voted to immediately stop generating power at the Kesslen Dam, due to age and deteriorating condition of turbines located in the basement of the Lafayette Center, equipment that reportedly dates to 1923. At that June meeting, KLP trustees also voted to not pursue federal relicensing of any of the dams. However, as of yet, they have taken no public position on what to so with the dams going forward.
At the general election in November, nearly 70 percent of Kennebunk voters said in a non-binding referendum that the dams should not be torn down.
“Surrendering the license does not mean dam removal,” said Cote’s co-facilitator, Joanna Tourangeau, adding that it is possible for one entity to own the dams, while another operates them, if power generation is to continue, under KLPD, or some other entity.
One possibility, often floated by river-front residents not anxious to see the water levels drop, would be for the town to take ownership of the dams, and possibly lease them out to someone else.
KLPD executive director Todd Shea said that is possible. While KLPD has, in at least two separate attempts, found no interest in other hydro firms running the dams, “the license is open,” he said.
“You’re not backed into a corner. There are some viable options that haven’t been explored,” Cote told the crowd, following dueling presentation by pro-dam group Save the Mousam, and one that hopes to return the river to its natural state, Free the Mousam.
That also was the message LePage brought to the meeting.
“I think you can have partnerships with the state,” he said. “You can have partnerships with the private sector. There are a lot of alternatives that have not been explored.
“You may not generate electricity and I’m not suggesting that’s the answer,” LePage said. “I’m just suggesting you may be able to keep your dams, because you’re dams have a lot of economic value to the community. I’m just suggesting don’t be so quick to give it up, because we’ve given it up and I’ve see so much damage over the years.”
Referring to the 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta, LePage said riverfront properties there and in Winslow have since “lost tremendous value.”
“I heard tonight, ‘Oh, it’s great. We’ve really helped it out,’ but there’s times of the year you can’t even get a kayak from Waterville to Augusta,” LePage said, adding that on Monday he sent a letter to the president, vice president, and select members of Congress complaining about FERC’s “major overreach” in regulating hydropower.
LePage pledged the state’s help in assisting Kennebunk as it tries to determine what to do with the dams, making it clear he’s a fan of hydropower over other forms of green energy.
“The Maine Legislature has made some terrible, terrible mistakes, because they pick winners and losers,” he said. “Frankly the Legislature should be agnostic to technology. They should only say lower the cost to without harm to the environment. If you do that, frankly there’s only two technologies that would show up — hydroelectricity and nuclear. That’s just a fact of life.”
Citing a Feb. 2015 hydropower report prepared for his energy office by Pittsfield-based Kleinschmidt, LePage said, “The technology is here that we can take the backbone of our existing hydro-dams and go in and bring new generation
“So, I just say, let’s be cautious here. Let’s explore rather or not the federal government is doing the right thing,” he said.
However, the first step, Cote said, is for selectmen and KLPD trustees to decide not just on a course of action, but a course for how to arrive at a decision.
“Ideally both of you decide the same way, because we’re going to have a real hard time moving forward if the board’s aren’t speaking the same language,” he said.
And Cote also took pains to tamp down enthusiasm that seemed evident after the majority of the audience — save for one lone heckler — applauded LePage’s comments.
“I would encourage folks to not think there is a white knight, so to speak,” Cote said, “who is going to come in here and say, ‘Hey, I am going to produce power at a cheap price and fix all of this.’”
Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.