By Susan Palmer
Amid the nation’s headlong rush for clean energy, two projects in Lane County show just how hard it can be to develop new sources of eco-friendly hydroelectric power.
Efforts to add electricity generating turbines to two flood-control dams on Willamette River tributaries are bogged down with environmental and financial problems. The turbines would generate enough electricity to power about 2,700 homes.
The Emerald People’s Utility District wants to add turbines to the Dorena dam on Row River and the Fall Creek dam on the Middle Fork of the Willamette. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the two dams, which were built decades ago to rein in devastating seasonal flooding.
EPUD, which buys 98 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, wants its own hydroelectric sources in order to increase its portfolio of renewable energy and to help keep down customer costs as BPA hikes its rates. The member-owned utility serves about 20,000 customers, mostly residential, in an area that roughly surrounds Eugene-Springfield.
The utility has partnered with Symbiotics Inc., an Idaho-based corporation that specializes in adding hydropower to existing dams. A unit of Symbiotics, Dorena Hydro LLC, received a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission almost a year ago, and EPUD had planned to begin construction on the project last summer.
But the economic downturn has altered that, EPUD officials said.
“The market right now has dropped tremendously for wholesale power,” said EPUD General Manager Frank Lambe. Coupled with construction costs that haven’t dropped, the project has become financially challenging, he said.
On the plus side, in the intervening months the federal government has begun providing stimulus money for a wide range of projects.
Stimulus money for energy projects can only go to private companies, while state funds to encourage clean energy projects come in the form of tax credits, requiring that companies have a tax liability to benefit from them, EPUD officials said.
So, EPUD and Symbiotics need a private company to build the Dorena project and take the tax breaks, then sell the turbine system to them once it is constructed, said EPUD power resources manager Pamela Hewitt.
State and federal financial help could shave as much as 35 percent off construction costs, Hewitt said.
EPUD previously has estimated the cost of construction at between $12 million and $15 million. More recent estimates are higher than that, she said.
But the clock is ticking on Dorena. To take advantage of the stimulus money, construction has to begin by 2010 and be completed by 2014, officials said.
The Fall Creek hydro project also is snagged – but in a different way. Unlike the Dorena hydropower proposal, which already has been licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, EPUD’s proposal to add power to the Fall Creek dam is still going through pre-license regulatory hoops, and one of them may be a deal-breaker for EPUD.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission doesn’t trust the fish screens proposed at the three power-generating turbines to keep imperiled juvenile salmon on their downstream passage from going through the turbines and being harmed or killed in the turbulence.
Federal regulators want EPUD to do a preliminary study on the effectiveness of the screens. The commission estimates the study would cost $500,000, and wants it done before issuing a preliminary license.
Here’s how the federal agency put it in a recent letter to Symbiotics:
“Given the importance of being able to provide safe and effective passage (for the fish), it is imperative that we work through the unknowns before the project is licensed. The alternative of issuing a license with performance standards is unacceptable since we have no basis for the assumption that the proposed protection measure will be effective.”
EPUD estimates the study at closer to $1 million and says the project can’t move forward without some confidence that the investment will pay off and that EPUD will win the license.
“It is not reasonable to expect an applicant to pursue final detailed design work before they are reasonably assured by a FERC license that no other hurdles will prevent development of the proposed project,” EPUD wrote in its appeal of the FERC decision.
If the commission insists on the study, that could jeopardize the project, Hewitt said.
“That’s going to be a decision our board is going to have to weigh in on,” she said.
Currently at Fall Creek, salmon heading upstream are captured by the corps below the dam, trucked above it and released. Salmon heading downstream go through a dangerous chute in the dam that injures many of them.
The utility expects the Dorena project to provide 15.5 million kilowatt hours per year, enough to power about 1,200 homes.
Fall Creek, if built, would provide 18.7 million kilowatt hours per year, or enough for about 1,500 homes.
EPUD’s goal is to obtain 15 percent to 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2011.