By John Richardson, Portland Press Herald Writer
A historic plan to remove or bypass three dams along the Penobscot River is moving closer to reality now that a Pennsylvania company has started generating more power at other nearby dams.
PPL Corp. increased production at the Stillwater Dam in Old Town and will soon do the same at dams at West Enfield and Medway, the company announced Wednesday.
For now, the changes mean additional hydropower going into New England’s energy grid. But the increases were also recognized Wednesday as a key step in a long-range, $50 million plan to reduce the number of hydro dams on the river and open up 500 miles of long-lost habitat for Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish.
A 2004 agreement allows for increased production at some PPL mills and calls for the removal of the Veazie and Great Works dams. The Howland Dam would be decommissioned and bypassed with a fishway, according to the plan.
The project has attracted national attention because of the collaboration among PPL, conservationists and the Penobscot Nation, and because of the impact it is expected to have on Maine’s premier salmon river.
“It’s the biggest restoration project on the East Coast,” said Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. She and others attended an Old Town news conference Wednesday to mark what she called an important milestone in the effort to remove the dams in 2010.
The trust, which includes six conservation groups and the Penobscot Nation, is working to raise about $25 million to buy the three dams from PPL. It will cost as much as $25 million more to remove or decommission them.
“We’re about a third of the way there” to financing the purchase, Day said. The project so far has been awarded $3.5 million in federal money and $4.5 million in private money. While private fundraising is continuing, the trust is pressing for much more federal aid because of the project’s potential for restoring salmon and other fish, Day said.
In addition to the purchase price, members of the trust also agreed not to oppose relicensing of the other dams to make it possible for PPL to increase power production.
The increased power production announced Wednesday is good for consumers, as well as the river, PPL spokesman Paul Wirth said, because of the additional hydropower flowing onto the grid. “It’s really the first major benefit of this agreement for the community,” he said.
To boost power production, the company simply used wooden boards to raise the level of the Stillwater Dam by one foot. “That gives more water pressure, which provides more energy output,” Wirth said.
When all three dams are raised in the same way, they will produce an additional 10,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year, enough to power 1,000 homes, he said.
The accord gives the company the ability to increase production at some other dams as well. That would require more of an investment in equipment and technology, and the company has no immediate plans to modify the other dams, he said.
Restoration advocates said the changes were a first step toward a new balance between energy and ecology on the river.
“This is very unique nationally – worldwide – that this type of collaboration has come together,” said Cheryl Daigle, spokeswoman for the trust. “It’s all about restoring the river for these historic runs of fish, but at the same time balancing the hydropower production.”>/p>