Dam Straight: Mayor Calls for “Clarity” on Hydro Numbers
NORTHAMPTON—A group proposing to preserve a 19th-Century dam and reservoir in Leeds by spending potential hydropower revenues has yet to persuade Mayor Mary Clare Higgins that their plan holds water, as outlined in a recent exchange of letters. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to view)
In 2009, the Friends of the Upper Roberts Meadow Reservoir and Chesterfield Road Dam were told by Higgins and city public works officials that they must not only pay for the cost of the generating facility, but raise $625,000 for 50 years of maintenance if they wish to preserve the structure with a hydropower plan. The group was given a deadline of June 30, 2010.
(NM is reporting the terms of this agreement as it is documented in a November 15, 2009 email message from Board of Public Works Chairman Terry Culhane to BPW members and the Friends. The Friends have stated on their site and in public that the city is requiring a sum of $25,000 and either $625,000 or “definitive proof” that a hydropower facility will pay for 50 years of dam maintenance. Friends spokesperson Dee Boyle-Clapp could not be immediately reached for comment.)
The Friends are now claiming that they have met the requirements of their agreement with the city. In a July 29, 2010 letter to Mayor Higgins, the group asserted, without citing specific documentation, that electricity sales from a small hydro facility at the Chesterfield Road Dam would “raise $1 million in the 50-year period by net metering,” and that these revenues would not only pay for ongoing dam maintenance, but generate a $400,000 surplus for the city over 50 years. “We have met that deadline,” the Friends wrote in an unsigned letter.
Higgins says that she is not convinced.
In an Aug. 12 response to the Friends, the mayor wrote, “. . .I do not believe that the City has enough information to definitively say that ‘adequate micro-hydro power exists in the Upper Roberts Meadow Reservoir to pay for its own future upkeep.’ ” While Higgins conceded that “there is agreement” about how much power the dam could produce, she called for “clarity” on a number of issues having to do with permitting, jurisdiction, costs and potential revenues.
BPW Chairman Culhane told Northampton Media today that the Friends have not folded project costs into their revenue projections.
“The cost of the hydro installation alone will run around $800,000,” he said. Culhane also said that he believes the project would not qualify for “net metering,” a mechanism that would, under specific circumstances, allow for a higher buyback rate for excess electricity. (See Wikipedia on net metering)
“There has to be a use for the electricity on-site in order to qualify for net metering,” Culhane said. “Otherwise, transmission lines would have to be built at an additional expense to water ratepayers.”
Higgins has ordered the city’s energy officer, Chris Mason, to contract with an “outside engineering firm” to review the work already done by the Essex Partnership, a small engineering firm contracted by the Friends, and by GZA, the city’s engineering consultants on the dam project. Mason told Northampton Media that he has sent out a request for quotes to several engineering consultants, expects the cost to be about $5,000, and would like to have the results in hand by September. The engineering review will be funded by water ratepayers through the city’s Water Enterprise Fund.
Over the past two years, GZA has produced an engineering alternatives study, a set of cost estimates, and a hydropower feasibility study for the site.
In April 2008, GZA recommended breaching the dam as the most cost-effective response to a state-issued order that the dam be either taken down or fixed.
In April 2009, Essex prepared a preliminary hydro assessment (Download PDF) for the Friends, but has not submitted project cost estimates or detailed engineering data. The Essex engineers have estimated annual gross hydropower revenues, depending upon which turbines are used, in the $20,000 range.
In the afternoon of June 29 — hours after the friends submitted their “victory” letter to Higgins — GZA, Essex, and the BPW met to try to iron out their differences. Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Chad Cain covered this meeting, and described a “testy exchange” between Culhane and the Friends regarding the exact wording of the agreement between the group and the city.
While both GZA and Essex agree that a small, 20-30 kilowatt generator could be installed at the dam, and that 100-130 megawatt-hours (mWh) of electricity could be generated there, revenue projections and project costs remain a sticking point. (See May 15 story on NM: Dueling Engineers.)
Although the Friends did not cite sources in their letter, their revenue projections are in line with estimates contained in the April 2009 Essex Partnership preliminary hydro assessment. In its calculations Essex assumed the city would sell electricity back to the grid at the net-metering rate of 15 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). (See black-and-white graphic of chart above)
But GZA (see blue, white, and black chart) insists that the project would not qualify for net metering, and in their 2009 hydropower feasibility study assumed a six-cent per kWh wholesale buy-back rate. GZA calculated a payback period of 55-78 years for the project with gross annual revenues of $13,000 tops, and concluded that hydropower development would not be economically feasible at the site.
“Save the Dam” Resolution before City Council
To complicate matters, the Friends’ optimistic financial projections for the project — which are one-and-a-half times higher than those made by the city’s consulting engineers — will be read into the record as fact this Thursday, Aug. 19, when a resolution to “Save the Dam” will be presented at Council Chambers.
The resolution, which asks the City Council to support the dam project if it can be shown to be revenue-neutral, is sponsored by Councilors Paul Spector, Eugene Tacy and Marianne LaBarge.
Ward 2 Councilor Paul Spector said on Tuesday that he supports the resolution, which he says was crafted by the Friends of the Dam, because he would like the group to have a “a more complete hearing” before the Board of Public Works. “There should be a comprehensive airing of all facts, without any bias,” Spector told Northampton Media. “We don’t want to walk away from this having either missed an opportunity or done something foolish.” Spector said he has not taken a personal position on whether the dam should be preserved or breached.
But in Culhane’s view, the Friends have received more than fair treatment from the Board.
“We have met with the Friends at least a dozen times, have held a public meeting at the JFK Middle School, and have met with their engineer,” Culhane told Northampton Media. “It’s not so much that the Friends haven’t been listened to — it’s that they haven’t persuaded the BPW that their case has merit.”
The measure contains a lengthy list of “whereas” statements, two of which contain contested claims about the project’s ability to generate cash by selling units of power back to the grid:
If the resolution passes, the City Council will agree to to endorse the project if it proves revenue-neutral, tell the BPW to petition the Office of Dam Safety to lower the dam’s hazard rating, and advise the BPW to stop planning for the dam’s demolition after it “considers” the value of the dam and reservoir to the city:
Culhane expressed doubt that the state’s Office of Dam Safety would agree to reduce the dam’s hazard designation. “That designation was determined by the federal Army Corps of Engineers and verified by our consulting engineers,” he told Northampton Media. “A state agency will not want to be on record for having taken that position were the dam to fail.” Culhane said that engineering studies required to support lowering the hazard designation would have to be paid for by the city’s water ratepayers.
“Public Works has no interest in the reservoir for use as a water supply,” said Culhane, who added that the city’s Water Department faces an imminent $5 million expenditure in dam repairs that serve the city’s actual drinking water supply. “My question to the City Council is this: who will pay for the costs associated with the resolution before you on Thursday? Taxpayers or ratepayers?”
Here are images of the letters recently exchanged between the Friends of the Dam and Higgins: