2017-12-15 / Community

Potential dam buyer visits Kennebunk

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

About 70 people attended an afternoon “scoping session” staged by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) staffers Monday, Dec. 11, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium, with another 50 turning out for a repeat session later that night. The event was a kickoff meeting that will ultimately lead to a FERC decision in 2020 on whether America First Hydro of Scarsdale, New York, will take over the hydro license on three Mousam River dams when the Kennebunk Light and Power District surrenders its license in 2022. (Duke Harrington photo) About 70 people attended an afternoon “scoping session” staged by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) staffers Monday, Dec. 11, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium, with another 50 turning out for a repeat session later that night. The event was a kickoff meeting that will ultimately lead to a FERC decision in 2020 on whether America First Hydro of Scarsdale, New York, will take over the hydro license on three Mousam River dams when the Kennebunk Light and Power District surrenders its license in 2022. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — More than four years after its name first began to be whispered in hushed tones about town, almost as if saying “Federal Energy Regulatory Commission” out loud might invoke a kind of bureaucratic Beetlejuice, members of the agency made their first call to Kennebunk Monday.

FERC held two “scoping sessions” in the town hall auditorium, and, is it turns out, its representatives were not scary and ominous men in black, but just three regular guys.

Of the five FERC staffers who will make a recommendation to the commission on licensing, or not, the Mousam River dams now owned by the Kennebunk Light and Power District (KLP), those who made the trip to Maine included Project Coordinator Michael Watts, New England Branch Chief Nick Tackett, and Fishery Biologist Steve Kartalia. And, as Watts made clear, the trio was not on hand to provide any answers on the five-year licensing process due to conclude in 2022, or even, really, to ask any questions.

“One thing we are here today to do is to ask you to help us identify the existing studies that might be out there that we don’t know about, to try and get those in the record,” Watts said. “We want to try and get that information and that will help us to determine what studies still need to be done, because we don’t feel like we necessarily need to repeat a study that’s already been done and done well. That’s what helps us to scope things out.”

The main purpose of the twin sessions, Watts said, was to gather public input on what questions people think FERC should ask as it sets out to determine if a new entity should be allowed to take over the hydro energy production license KLP directors have voted to relinquish.

That decision came in March, after several years of contemplation by KLP, and ultimately led to much hand-wringing by selectmen over the town’s role, especially in light of sharp public outcry to keep the dams in place — a position made known in a three-part referendum question in November 2016, even as environmental groups lobbied for removal of the three dams — all originally built more than a century ago to power local mills.

After selectmen decided they did not want to commit any taxpayer dollars to taking over the dams, or even to fronting working capital to the one hydro operation that showed interest in the facilities, it appeared FERC would be facing a decommissioning process. However, just at the final gong of its deadline, a new outfit, America First Hydro of Scarsdale, New York, submitted a letter of intent to take over the KLP license.

At Monday’s twin scoping session, about 125 people — about 75 in the afternoon session and nearly 50 that evening, not counting a sizable contingent that turned out for both sessions — got to hear from America First founder Ian Clark for the first time.

“We thought there was a great opportunity to come in here and help folks in the town out, realizing these are projects that just need a little bit of a push in the right direction and there is wide support from the governor’s office for them,” Clark said.

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 tried 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 at the time. “You can have partnerships with the private sector. There are a lot of alternatives that have not been explored. The technology is here that we can take the backbone of our existing hydro-dams and go in and bring new generation.

According to Dick Morin, chairman of the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen, he and Town Manager Mike Pardue later met with LePage, although nothing resulted beyond continued pledges of support.

“We are looking for a development objective, working with all of the stakeholders involved, including the many environmental concerns here today, to push forward and work toward and overall solution for everybody,” Clark said. “But our key take-home message is that we just want to make sure everything going forward is based on facts. We want everything to be simply, strictly based on the science, going forward, on the numbers and actual facts are, rather than feelings and what things could be, or should be, or want to be.

Clark said he and his partner Paul Nolan, hope to refurbish and maybe even replace power turbines at the three dams to increase electrical production.

“We believe these facilities have tremendous potential and that we can push them forward into the 21st, the 22nd, and, heck, if we do out jobs right, even into the 23rd century” Clark said.

Some in the audience were dubious. Jeff Reardon of Manchester, on hand to represent Trout Unlimited, noted that America First had initially filed its “unequivocal intent” to take over all three Mousam River dams, then updated its FERC filings to leave open the possibility that it might take on just two, or even one. Then, he noted, Clark stood and said the company could actually be up for modernizing all of the turbines and equipment, some of which date back as far as 1923, and adding electrical distribution

“Those are three very different proposals,” he said. “I’d like to know which one I am supposed to comment on because my comments would be different for all three.”

“The applicant is at the very beginning of the pre-application process,” Tackett said. “And I think it’s fair enough to recognize that the process can evolve as they find out more information. The pre-application documents might not necessarily be the same as the final application that is to be filed in the year 2020. I expect to see some variation going forward.”

“What we are trying to address is that we want to show flexibility in our thinking process, as to how we proceed in how we address the concerns that we see,” Nolan. “If we were to just come up here and say, ‘This is what we are going to do, we’re just going to relicense as-is, where-is, and that’s all we’re going to talk about,’ then we don’t even need to have this meeting.’ Our intent is to relicense the dams, and we may build out additional capacity or we may license just one or more of the dams in order to provide [environmental] mitigation. So, what we actually end up relicensing will depend on what you all have to say and how we work together.”

After the meeting, Clark, 31, said he first “got hooked on dams” seven years ago on Christmas Eve. A New Hampshire native, he earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Oregon and embarked on a career designing organometallic catalysts, racking up several patents along the way.

But after the start of the recession in 2009, he transitioned into finance and while doing research into a public company he got a chance to took a small hyrdo facility in Newton, Vermont.

“So, I spent Christmas Eve with this gentleman who was showing me all of his plants and I thought to myself, ‘I think this about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.’ It’s green, it’s renewable, it’s basically one of the best power sources you can have on the grid today. You have all of the things solar and wind don’t have, but then you also have other ancillary benefit that coal and nuclear and all those don’t have. So, it bridges the gap between this energy transition we are going through.”

Clark went on to to found Dichotomy Capital, an investment firm that specializes in renewable resources. The company currently owns and operates hydro facilities in Laconia, Campton and Rochester, New Hampshire. In those projects, Clark partnered with Nolan, an attorney by trade and consultant to the hydro-electric field since 1985.

“A significant portion of our business is focused on energy assets,” Clark said. “We look for hydroelectric facilities and other sorts of renewable energy, to see how we can fit in to ultimately save groups money, make the communities better, and employ people — the whole nine yards.”

America First was created as a separate entity, Clark said, with Nolan and a managing partner, specifically as a special purpose entity “to go after” the Mousam dams, as a way to best work through the FERC process with KLP, the town, and “all the stakeholders.”

Over the course of three hours during the afternoon sessions, attendees brought up numerous environmental and economic studies related to the Mousam River dams in Kennebunk, while also raising many of the same concerns, raised on both sides of the issue — to keep the dams or tear them down — over the past few years, since it became known KLP would have to declare by early 2017 whether it wanted to pursue FERC relicensing.

Although many of the concerns centered around the presence, or not, of various species of fish, Kartalia pointed out that one concern that could impact relicensing is what threat, if any, the dams might pose to the threatened northern long-eared bat.

All requests to have a particular study performed are due to FERC by January 18. America First will have to foot the bill for any studies ordered, and FERC is due to issue its first report on those studies July 21, 2019.

Following a dispute period and additional rounds of studies, America First will have to submit its preliminary licensing proposal on Nov. 2, 2019, and its final application on March 31, 2020.

“Given the facts that I have right now, I absolutely believe these dams can be brought back to life,” Clark said. “We can fund a better output for them and we can turn them into real winners over the long term.”

Morin said he felt Monday’s sessions went well.

“I’m pleased with what I heard,” he said. “I’m pleased that both sides appear to have come to the table with one mission, and that’s the proper resolution to the helding of the dams. I think there’s a great diversity of interests at play, but in the end, everybody seems to be coming together to say, let’s do it the right way, let’s consider all of the factors, all of the variables, and make sure everybody gets a fair shake.

“And that’s good, because we only get one try at this. If we take the dams down, they certainly are not going to be put back up. So, we really need to make sure we take the right approach, and make sure that’s what’s happening.”

Pardue said that as soon as FERC has transcribed the meetings for its records, the power point proposal shared with the public will be posted to the town website.

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

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