Developer Pulls Plug  On Dam Plan

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Lebanon — A Boston-based hydropower developer has abandoned plans to generate power using two dams along the Mascoma River in Lebanon, saying the project would be too costly.

Tom Tarpey, owner of Grafton Hydro LLC, filed a petition last week with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to surrender a permit that allows him to study the proposed energy project.

The move comes after more than two years of research, which revealed that the two-dam project wouldn’t produce sizable enough profits, Tarpey said during an interview on Monday.

“Energy prices are extra low and it looks like they’re going to stay low for a good long time,” he said.

Grafton Hydro proposed generating energy from the existing Mascoma Lake Dam and a new dam that would be built in downtown Lebanon.

The downtown dam’s intake would have been constructed between High Street and Route 120, behind the Mascoma Village Apartments. A pipe would have carried water from there to a power house between Foundry and Water streets.

Together, the dams were expected to generate more than 2.1 megawatts, according to FERC filings. That’s enough to power 1,500 homes, under estimates from the California Energy Commission.

But sale of that electricity likely wouldn’t recoup the project costs, Tarpey said.

Wholesale electricity prices saw a significant decrease in 2016, with demand hitting a 17-year low, according to ISO New England, which manages the region’s electric grid.

That dip largely was the result of low natural gas prices, the nonprofit wrote in a May report.

Although prices have ticked up in 2017, they’re still not high enough for Tarpey’s project to move forward, he said.

“We did expect that energy prices were going to turn around more rapidly than they appeared to be ready to do,” he said, adding he might consider re-evaluating the project in the future.

But while Tarpey was lamenting the decision, paddling and environmental groups were celebrating.

“We certainly welcome the surrender. We opposed the effort to put a hydro power dam in downtown Lebanon,” said Bob Nasdor, the northeast stewardship director for American Whitewater.

Nasdor’s group was among at least five paddling organizations that submitted filings with FERC, arguing the dams would prevent people from enjoying the river.

The section of river that runs through downtown includes difficult Class IV and V rapids, which offer a nearby and convenient stretch for advanced paddlers, advocates argued.

A portion of the river near the Packard Hill Covered Bridge also is used by Dartmouth College’s Ledyard Canoe Club for its annual Mascoma Slalom, a more than 50-year-old race that was once served as an Olympic trial event.

“The project would have totally eliminated that resource in the downtown area,” Nasdor said. “Our position is that we certainly didn’t need one more dam in that area.”

Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy, also said he welcomed the surrender and had “significant concerns about the way the project was being proposed.”

Both Fisk and Nasdor said Grafton Hydro’s decision came as a bit of a surprise, though. The regulatory filings have been quiet as the company performed internal studies, they said.

Grafton Hydro submitted its last progress report to FERC officials in July, reporting the firm was engaged in “research and collection of publicly available information relating to the geology, hydrology, real estate ownership, natural resource concerns and recreational uses” of the river.

The report was nearly identical to two others submitted previously, and a fourth update was due on Jan. 31.

The company obtained the rights to study the environmental and financial feasibility of the two dams in 2015, when it received a permit from FERC.

The permit allowed Tarpey to commission inquiries on the river’s hydrology, what type of equipment would be needed and whether the public would support the project.

Tarpey expected to spend a total of $121,000 from the combined analysis over three years, according to his initial FERC filing.

Tarpey said he hopes the FERC staff will reply to his petition soon, and likely will allow him to give up the project for now.

“For the time being, that’s the situation,” he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.