Seabright Dam hydropower plant decomissionedCosts of looming upgrades seal fate of small hydropower operation
CAMDEN — The climbing costs of repairing and upgrading a small hydropower plant at the town-owned Seabright Dam have led to the plant's permanent closure.
The Seabright Dam is one of a series of dams along the Megunticook River that helps regulate water levels along the river and in Megunticook Lake. It is visible from the beach at Shirttail Point, and located near Mt. Battie Street.
While the hydropower plant was revenue positive in five of its eight years of ownership by the town, repairs and upgrades will cost more than the value of the electricity the dam can produce for a number of years. At the same time, the town is facing costs for needed repairs and upgrades to infrastructure at Seabright, East, West and Montgomery dams.
In spring 2016, the smaller of two generators running Seabright Hydro burnt out after only five years of operation due to an outdated control panel that caused the electrical components to overheat, according to Wastewater Commissioner David Bolstridge. He estimates that between $126,000 and $156,000 is needed for equipment upgrades and regulatory requirements within the next fiscal year in order to keep Seabright Hydro running.
The estimate is based on a report issued last year by a dam engineer Bolstridge hired to inspect the hydro plant after the small generator failed. The engineer found that the two control panels that run the two hydropower generators no longer meet codes and standards. The cost to build and install new control panels is between $70,000 and $100,000. The engineer recommended that power generation be halted, unless new control panels are installed.
The generator that burnt out is the smaller of the two and replacement will cost $12,000. The larger, working generator will need a rebuild within the next two years at a cost of $20,000.
A required FERC regulatory review of the hydropower plant will cost around $20,000, according to Bolstridge. He explained that the FERC review is required every five years and would be due this year if the hydropower operation continued.
The town is also facing costs for needed maintenance for Seabright, East, West and Montgomery dams.
Work to limit leakage under the powerhouse at Seabright Dam is estimated to cost $25,000. In December, a petition signed by 130 owners of inland waterfront property on the Megunticook River and lake asked the Select Board to make this repair a priority in 2017, in order to address low water levels seen last summer and fall. The Select Board has promised to budget for this repair for 2017.
Including the Seabright Dam repair, about $100,000 is needed for dam repair and improvements in the 2017-2018 budget, according to Interim Town Manager Roberta Smith. A reserve fund the town uses to save for future dam repairs will help pay for a percentage of the repairs, as well as funds expected from the town of Lincolnville, which contributes 33 percent towards work on the East and West dams.
The town of Camden reports annually on the revenue generated by Seabright Hydro, as well as expenses for running the plant.
Revenues for fiscal years from 2009 to 2016 are: $10,819 (FY '09), $0 (FY '10), $15,975 (FY '11), $11,119 (FY '12), $17,063 (FY '13), $20,440 (FY '14), $19,194 (FY '15), $9,676 (FY '16).
In five of the eight years of operation, revenue exceeded expenses for the dam. One of the expenses Seabright Hydro paid was the small stipend averaging $5,200 annually for a full-time employee to monitor and control water levels at all four of the town's four dams.
On March 7, Bolstridge provided the Select Board with a full report projecting costs to upgrade Seabright Hydro, revenue and expenses going back to 2009, and estimates for dam repairs. The Select Board voted to terminate the hydropower plant, to avoid the costs associated with continuing the operation.
The dam was built in 1888 and used to power various woolen mills that existed at the site until 1972. In 1984, Joe Sawyer purchased Seabright Dam, and undertook the massive project of reinforcing the structure. Sawyer restored the hydropower plant by 1988, and produced electrical power, which he sold to Central Maine Power, for 20 years. In 2007, Sawyer offered to donate the dam and power plant to the town of Camden at no cost. His contract with CMP was ending, and changes in CMP power agreements were no longer favorable for individual hydropower owners. In 2007, Camden voters agreed to accept Sawyer's donation of the dam to the town. The Seabright Dam Hydroelectric Facility began operating under town ownership in September 2008.
During Sawyer's ownership, the annual power production ranged from 241,440 kilowatt hours to 330,080 kilowatt hours, with highest output during fall, due to rainfall, and spring, due to snow melt and rainfall.
Camden's energy committee estimated in 2007 that the town would realize around $30,000 in annual energy value by selling the hydropower to CMP. The plan was that the energy sold to CMP would offset the cost of electricity used to run the Wasterwater Treatment plant.
Courier Publications reporter Susan Mustapich can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at email@example.com.