Board reaffirms interest in Mousam dams
KENNEBUNK — Now that the Kennebunk Light and Power District (KLP) has followed though on a June 15 trustee vote to eventually get out of the hydropower business on which it was founded — filing a formal notice of intent March 29 of its intent to not pursue federal relicensing — the town has likewise formally declared its interest in the dams.
At their April 11 meeting, selectmen were scheduled to approve a “letter of interest” to be sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as a “motion to intervene.” That vote took place after the deadline for this week’s Post, but on April 10, Town Manager Michael Pardue noted that the wording of the town filing is largely bureaucratic legalese.
A letter of interest does not necessarily indicated selectmen are interested in taking on the dams as municipal property, while a motion to intervene does not mean the town is seeking to step in the way of any KLP action regarding the dams.
“It lays no claim to any property whatsoever. The town has remained completely neutral on that,” Pardue said, of the possibility that KLP might sell the dams to some other entity, or take on the expense of tearing them down.
“All the letter says is that the board wishes to be kept abreast of any filings or orders that may occur going forward,” Pardue said.
However, that said, Pardue was also not saying selectmen are not interested in municipal ownership of the dams, whether to simply preserve them to maintain current water levels in the river, or to continue generating power through some entity other than KLP.
“The town has not closed the door to any options whatsoever,” he said, reiterating his statement from the March 28 board meeting, at which he said, “Work continues [and] I want to continue to remind people we are not asleep at the wheel at all. We are very vigilant in our watching of that project.”
At the general election in November, nearly 70 percent of Kennebunk voters said in a non-binding referendum — placed on the ballot via citizens petition — that the dams should not be torn down. That vote was referenced in the draft of the town’s motion to intervene.
“The town’s interests are unique and directly at stake in this proceeding,” reads a draft of the letter, prepared for selectboard approval by Joanna Tourangeau, an attorney with the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon. “The Lower Mousam Project is located entirely within the municipal boundaries of the town. Further, a portion of the project is located in the center of town. Electricity generated by the project is utilized by the town and many of its citizens. Finally, in November 2016, three non-binding referendum questions on the town ballot indicated significant citizen interest in the future of the project.”
Based on the that interest, the draft letter said, “the town respectfully requests inclusion on any notices by the commission in initiating any environmental assessment, relicensure, or license transfer activities which may occur in the period between the filing of the KLP notice of intent to surrender and any surrender application.”
But any such documents may not be quick in coming.
The current KLP license to generate power from its three dams on the lower Mousam River in Kennebunk — the Kesslen dam at Route 1 downtown, as well as the Dane Perkins and Twine Mill dams further upriver — does not expire until 2022. According to Jay Kilbourn, president of the KLP Board of Trustees, now that the utility has notified FERC of its intent to not renew its license, the actual application to surrender that license in not due until 2020.
“We do not currently have any agenda item scheduled on the dams,” Kilbourn wrote in an April 10 email. “The next likely actions will be around maintenance of the aging and expensive hydropower units, as the need arises. Our next required filing with FERC is in about three years.”
In June, KLP trustees voted to suspend power generation at the Kesslen dam, out of concern for the state of the equipment.
“That was temporary and problems identified at that time were resolved,” Kilbourn said. “Power production was resumed. So far, trustees have agreed that we intend to operate the hydropower plants, provided that they are quite old and costly to repair and maintenance is currently on a case- by-case basis.”
KLP Executive Director Todd Shea was not available for comment Monday, by has said the March 29 filing opens a three-year window during which time others can apply to take over the FERC licenses for the Mousam dams.
At the Feb. 28 KLP trustees meeting, Shea said four firms have expressed an interest in taking over the dams. When asked by a resident to name those companies, Shea declined to reveal two of the interested parties, saying only that they “never came to fruition after I tried to reach out.”
A third party is Surge Hydro. However, Shea said “They have not expressed interest since May of 2016.” According to Kilbourn, Surge Hydro still has made no offer to KLP trustees.
“There have been conversations with Surge,” he said, “but no Surge proposal has been formally presented to the board for approval. The board of trustees has encouraged our general manager to be open to such conversations.”
While there have been no reported talks between Surge and KLP, company officials did meet with selectmen last month in a closed-door meeting that lasted about 45 minutes. Pardue said at that meeting Surge presented its business plan, but declined to characterize the meeting beyond that.
“They went over in detail their proposed business plan, but beyond that I can’t comment,” he said.
Pardue and selectboard chairman Dick Morin have defended the private meeting, saying it was allowed under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act under rules for executive sessions which allow municipal boards to close the doors on conversations centered on economic development, real estate purchases, or contract negotiations, where premature public disclosure may hard the town’s negotiating position.
Based out of Belfast, Surge was founded in 2013 by Maine Maritime Academy graduates David Markley and Nicholas Cabral to develop lower-cost methods to retrofit old non-generating dams, starting with four dams along the Goose River below Swan Lake.
In February, Surge won an award at the national Cleantech Open contest in San Francisco for the “Business Model with the Best Chance for Immediate Investment and Commercialization,” according to Jeff Marks, executive director of the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine.
Markley could not be reached for comment Monday. Surge’s Goose River dams are reportedly licensed to generate about 430 kilowatts of electricity. The three Mousam dams, by contrast, have a combined capacity of about 600 Kw, providing less than 2 percent of the power used by KLP customers.
Some commenters on social media claim selectmen turned away Surge’s proposal, but Pardue said, “the town has in no way rebuffed them. They [selectmen] remain very interested in hearing more from Surge Hydro.”
Shea has identified the fourth entity interested in the dams as Blue Water Hydro, out of New York.
“The governor’s office gave me their name, sent me contact information. I replied to the contact information and didn’t have any further communication,” Shea said at the Feb. 28 KLP meeting.
Gov. Paul LePage has expressed interest in the Mousam River dams, even showing up unannounced at a Jan. 18 joint meeting between selectmen and KLP trustees. At that meeting, LePage pledged the state’s help in assisting Kennebunk as it tries to determine what to do with the dams, saying there are options other than tearing them down.
“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. I’m just suggesting you may be able to keep your dams, because your 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 up [in other cases] and I’ve see so much damage over the years.
“The technology is here that we can take the backbone of our existing hydro-dams and go in and bring new generation,” LePage said. “So, I just say, let’s be cautious here. Let’s explore whether or not the federal government is doing the right thing.”
LePage has lobbied FERC and President Trump to relax rules on licensing small hydro facilities, which, in the case of the Lower Mousam dams, would include a multi-million dollar requirement to install fish ladders in order to continue operating.
Shea said that since the governor’s appearance at the January meeting, he and town officials have met twice in Augusta — once in LePage’s office and once with the governor’s staff.
“The motion to intervene is not a pre-disposition of the fate of the dams,” Morin said. “The board recognizes the extraordinary interest both sides of the issue generated and this motion keeps us (the town) in the mix. We heard a rather loud voice in the three non-binding referendum questions. The town is doing due diligence by exploring both sides of the issue and the potential for third party interest in power generation. This is not a matter taken lightly by the board of selectmen and will not be decided by the board alone.
“The decision on the fate of the dams will lie squarely in the hands of the voters,” Morin said.
Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at email@example.com.