PORTLAND, Maine — If money were no object, Maine could increase its capacity to produce power from rivers and streams by more than a quarter.
But the latest inventory of Maine hydropower found the projects most likely to be built would increase existing capacity by far less, closer to 7.4 percent, or 56 megawatts.
The estimates come from the first state-level hydropower and dam inventory since 1992, which Gov. LePage’s Office of Energy commissioned from consultants Kleinschmidt to give a road map to the effort to boost hydropower in the state.
Beyond accounting for existing hydropower facilities, the study took a broader review of the industry and solicited policy recommendations for boosting hydropower capacity in the state, putting forward a recommendation from hydropower industry officials that the state create a hydropower coordinator, establish policies to make more long-term contracts available to hydropower projects and to make changes to permitting requirements.
Starting, or restarting, a conversation. Patrick Woodcock, head of the governor’s energy office, wrote in an email that the study, presented Thursday to the Legislature’s Energy Committee, is “trying to start a conversation about the resource.”
Increasing hydropower capacity has long been a goal for the LePage administration, with one known policy goal stated clearly in recent speeches: removing a limitation that prevents most renewable energy generators with more than 100 megawatts of capacity from participating in the state’s renewable energy credit market.
By law, utilities are required to buy a certain amount of renewable power, which is subsidized by power plants in the region, based on their carbon emissions.
Companies with more than 100 megawatts of generation capacity are prevented from qualifying for those renewable power contracts, with the exception of wind power. LePage has tried in the past to remove that 100-megawatt cap, but the measure was voted down in the Senate in 2013.
By and large, sellers into that market are smaller biomass producers. Though wind developers with more than 100 megawatts of capacity can qualify, other states in southern New England offer more generous renewable energy credits, which along with federal wind power production credits have fueled development in the state.
Where’s the most potential? The study isolated 56 megawatts of capacity that could likely be added, based on the economics, permitting dynamics and generation potential from a group of 110 dams. That’s culled from an estimated 891 dams across the state.
Kleinschmidt pared the list based on the size of dams, studies of water flow, possible environmental or regulatory issues, more detailed engineering assessments and market studies to determine how long upgrades would take to pay back.
The study concluded that the state has about 12 powered dams and 35 unpowered dams where there is “significant development potential,” with a total of 56 megawatts of capacity that could be added.
Another 54 dams had moderate development potential and nine fell into the category of having limited development potential.
There was no geographic rhyme or reason to those with significant or less significant potential for development, with generating projects spanning from York to Aroostook counties. For dams not generating power now, the survey found a number in the western half of the state that could be developed, but mentioned that many of those face challenges in having transmission lines that would connect them with the power grid.
What can be done? The report went beyond just an inventory and study of existing dams to make policy recommendations about what’s holding back further hydropower development. That brought up a variety of concerns, primarily with pricing, permitting and possible incentives that the state could provide for development.
The study said generators want access to long-term power-purchasing agreements — a call that LePage could adopt in advocating for removing the 100-megawatt cap for the state’s renewable energy market — and that they also believe there are some less quantifiable barriers in the form of past opposition to dams from groups like American Rivers, American Whitewater, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited.
How does hydropower fit in with other sources? Hydropower accounts for about 755 megawatts of the state’s generation capacity and about a quarter of the total power generated annually.
That comes from 63 FERC-licensed hydropower projects in the state with 723 megawatts of installed capacity. Another 18 hydroelectric projects in the state are not licensed with FERC and have a capacity of about 24 megawatts. There’s less than 1 megawatt of capacity in state-licensed hydropower projects on smaller waterways.
While LePage has made loudest his support for expanding natural gas pipelines in the region, hydropower is the first segment of the renewable energy sector that his administration is tackling during his second term.