County officials hope to submit application for power-producing turbine by June 1
By Ed Merriman
Baker City Herald
Baker County Commissioners advanced plans Wednesday for installing a $3.1 million power turbine at Mason Dam, a project that could add up to $1 million a year to the county’s coffers.
Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr. said the county has been working its way through the regulatory process for about three years, and is nearly ready to submit a permit application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"We are about two months away from applying for the permit,” Warner said.
He estimates the county would make between $500,000 and $1 million per year from selling electricity generated at the dam.
"It’s a positive cash flow for the county,” he said. "It’s renewable energy on water that’s coming through the dam anyway.”
He said the turbine would be designed to protect fish.
The county is waiting for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to decide whether fish screens will be required, Warner said.
"Once we have the license to install the turbine, it won’t take long to do it,” Warner said. "Putting in a turbine is easy, but until you have a permit you can’t do anything.”
The project includes building a turbine house, cutting into the outlet pipe below the dam and installing the turbine. There’s also a mile-long uphill run to connect into an existing power line.
Warner said if the permit application is submitted to FERC by June 1 as planned, the county could be ready to begin installing the turbine as early as October of this year, and it could be operational early next year.
However, Warner said if the permitting process drags on, the project could be delayed a year or more.
To avoid delays, commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to reimburse the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for an assessment needed to obtain Section 401 certification required under the federal Clean Water Act.
Jason Yencopal, the county’s Mason Dam project coordinator, said that as part of the turbine permitting process the county must obtain assessments from DEQ, ODFW and the U.S. Forest Service confirming that erosion control, water quality and fish protections will be as good or better after the turbine is installed.
Based on his conversations with DEQ officials, Yencopal estimated the maximum cost for the DEQ assessments will be $6,000 to $10,000, although he said he has seen cases in which DEQ charged $25,000.
Warner said in years past, DEQ conducted such assessments with public funds appropriated to the agency.
"Nowadays it seems like there’s a fee for everything,” he said.
Yencopal said part of the Section 401 certification process looks at how installation of a turbine will affect turbidity and dissolved oxygen levels in the Powder River downstream from Mason Dam.
"We need to move forward,” Warner said. "We need to bring it to the budget board and decide how we are going to fund the final application and get it to FERC,” Warner said. "It will be in the neighborhood of $150,000.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners authorized Warner to proceed with negotiations with Ted Sorensen Engineering to complete engineering work that must be included with the FERC permit application.
"I think it will be close to $50,000” for Sorensen’s work, Warner said.
However, that’s a ballpark estimate, and once he negotiates a firm price with Sorensen, Warner said he’ll bring a contract back for approval and a vote of the commission.
Commissioner Tim Kerns said he recently read about the city of Portland spending millions of dollars in energy trust funding to install solar panels on commercial buildings.
"Have we even talked to anybody about energy trust funding?” Kerns asked.
Yencopal said he’s looked into the availability of federal and state renewable energy tax credits, stimulus dollars and other grants to pay part of the projected $3.1 million cost of installing the turbine.
However, most of the money Portland tapped for the solar panels was through Pacific Power and Portland General Electric, and that source of funding is not available through the Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative or Idaho Power, the utilities serving Baker County.
Yencopal said planning and design for the turbine project wasn’t far enough along last February to qualify as a shovel-ready green project under the federal stimulus package.
However, he said changes in the rules and deadlines appear to open the door to federal green energy stimulus funds for projects like the Mason Dam turbine.
"They changed the shovel-ready date a bit, so we might be able to slip in under it,” Yencopal said.