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EWEB could pull plug on Trail Bridge hydro plant

Carmen Smith generatorsMCKENZIE BRIDGE: Changes in the power market will likely impact plans for major upgrades at the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s Trail Bridge Dam. As part of an ongoing process to renew a federal license to operate the Carmen Smith hydropower facility, the utility had proposed building a screen at the dam to prevent downstream migrating fish from going through turbine blades. Because water levels in the reservoir formed by the dam fluctuate on a daily basis, the screen would be more complex than the blocking devices currently in use at EWEB’s other projects. Recent estimates put the price tag for a “floating” fish screen in the neighborhood of $45 million.

That doesn’t pencil out when generators at Trail Bridge produce only 1/10 of the Carmen Smith complex’s 100-megawatt output.

“The economics of selling power on the market have been turned completely on their heels,” according to Lance Robertson, the utilities public affairs manager.  “The old model we worked on for the last 40 to 50 years doesn’t work anymore and it doesn’t look like it will turn around for the next 10 to 15 years.”

One of the big impacts in power generation has been the development of the domestic natural gas supply in the U.S. and low cost power coming out of gas turbine plants.

In the past, Robertson said, EWEB and other utilities would sell the excess power they generated and use that income to cut customer rates. “Anybody who has their own generators is kind of in the same spot,” he noted. One of them is Seattle City Light, which used to sell from $140 to $150 million in surplus power. That figure has dropped to $69 million per year.

Besides the Leaburg and Walterville hydro projects, EWEB also has contracts to purchase electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, the Seneca bio-fuel plant in Eugene, and from wind farms.

The license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the Carmen Smith project expired in 2008. Since then the utility has been meeting with 16 “partners” – ranging from the U.S. Forest Service to the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and from environmental groups to American Indian tribes. The result of those talks was a plan to invest $160 million in relicensing projects that would include upgrades to the generators as well as ways of lessening environmental impacts. Although no formal agreements have been reached, EWEB hopes that eliminating the generators and turbines at the Trail Bridge Dam will also eliminate the need for a screen. Instead, the dam’s spillway could be modified to allow endangered bull trout and salmon to get past the structure.

Still part of the proposal, though, would be ways of improving upstream passage. That plan is to build a fish ladder at a cost of around $12 million.

Robertson said no firm timeline has yet been established but recalls it took 15 years to go through the relicensing process for the Walterville/Leaburg project. “We’re hoping it will be less than that,” he said. Current plans call for construction of a fish ladder or other projects to occur in 2016 or 2017. If a license were approved, EWEB would have seven years to complete any construction activity.

The Carmen Smith relicensing, along with EWEB’s possible transfer of its downriver service area to Lane Electric, are likely to be topics when the utility’s board of commissioners meets in September. That meeting, set for September 17th at 5:30 p.m., will be held at McKenzie Fire & Rescue’s Leaburg Training Center.

Image above: The two generators at EWEB’s Carmen Smith powerhouse are scheduled for upgrades as part of FERC’s relicensing of the hydroelectric complex.


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