by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
Conservation groups, members of the Penobscot Nation and federal officials are preparing for an historic occasion next week when the first of two dams on the Penobscot River is demolished: the 200-year-old Great Works Dam. One dignitary who won’t be attending is Gov. Paul LePage. Instead the Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources will deliver supportive remarks. The governor says the dam’s removal runs counter to his energy objectives.
The removal of the 1,000-foot-long Great Works Dam in Bradley on Monday is a milestone in an unusual, 13-year, collaborative effort by a coalition of conservation groups, hydropower producers and state and federal agencies to tear down two out-dated, inefficient dams on the Penobscot and restore sea-run fish runs.
What’s also unique about the project, known as the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, is that hydropower will not be decreased as a result of the dams’s removal. Laura Rose Day is the executive director of the Trust.
“When the Penobscot project is over there will be at least as much hydropower generation on the Penobscot system, and likely more,” says the trust’s executive director, Laura Rose-Day.
Rose-Day says that’s because the arrangement allows hydropower producer Black Bear Hydro to increase energy development at other facilities along the river system–places where there is more adequate fish passage and that make more economic sense for power generation.
But Gov. LePage doesn’t see it that way. Asked about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s participation in Monday’s celebration LePage joked with reporters and municipal leaders at a business recognition event Wednesday morning. “Suppose I should call up the National Guard,” he said.
The governor went on to say that he thinks dam removal is inappropriate, given that hydropower is a renewable resource and electricity prices in Maine are so high. “I think it’s irresponsible for our state or our country to be taking out hydro dams at this time. In fact, we ought to be putting more in,” he said.
According to the International Energy Agency, only a fraction of the nation’s 90,000 dams are used for hydropower anymore. And because of the expensive cost of construction and the amount of land and water involved, big dams aren’t being built except in rare circumstances.
Even the National Hydropower Association, which advocates hydropower in the nation’s energy mix, says the way to go is to boost capacity at existing dams. Jeff Leahey is the group’s executive director.
“We believe that there are opportunities throughout the water power or hydro power spectrum,” he says. “Recently the Department of Energy came out with a new report that looked at existing infrastructure and found that there was over 12 gigawatts nationally of new hydropower that could be installed on these existing dams. And we do consider some of that the low-hanging fruit in the sector to be developed.”
Leahey says the economics probably pan out better for projects that involve existing infrastructure. But he says any new dam construction should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
In the case of the Great Works Dam, Laura Rose-Day of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust says it was inefficient, up for relicensing and would have needed tremendous work to be brought to modern standards.
Next year the Veazie Dam, which is larger and closer to the ocean, is expected to be removed. Once both dams are gone, Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish gain improved access to 1,000 miles of ancestral river habitat.