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Board supports dam removal

Finances key to ending Leaburg power production

EUGENE: In what several commissioners referred to as “the best of the worst” options, the Eugene Water & Electric Board has endorsed plans to remove Leaburg Dam, fix stretches of a leaking canal, and back away from some local power generation. The move came after 20 board sessions that have been discussing what to do with the aging facility after water seepage caused the hydroelectric plant’s shutdown in 2018.

Studies and negotiations with federal agencies are likely to go on for another ten years before any removal work begins but ongoing repairs to the canal will continue. Prior to the time when turbines stopped turning, the facility could produce 15.9 megawatts, equivalent to around 4 percent of EWEB’s overall generating ability.

Not happy with the utility’s plans was utility customer William Henshaw who told the board he felt taking away the resiliency of local production “gives it over to hedge funds and windfarms or solar projects.” Henshaw said he was flabbergasted that combined costs to rehabilitate a five-mile canal amounted to over $1/4 billion He also questioned the way EWEB had projected electrical rates in their calculations. “You sell on retail, you don’t sell on wholesale,” he said. “You’re not selling that electricity back into the market, you’re using that locally.”

Also giving public testimony at the December 3rd meeting was Bob Spencer of Vida. He favored the dam’s removal, saying it was “right for the river and a step forward for this natural resource.” But Spencer was critical of the decision to not include the Walterville hydro project in current discussions, calling it a dirt ditch that leaks with the “same exact problems.”

The six-part recommendation to decommission power generation “won’t result in wrecking balls coming out next week,” explained EWEB general manager Frank Lawson. “We’re dealing with issues that will take years, potentially decades, and want to be willing to take a look at the future as it changes.

Five items EWEB plans to address include permanently ending Leaburg electricity generation, removing the dam/bridge, developing access to the south bank area, repairing the canal for tributary stream and stormwater runoff, and remaining open to “mitigating opportunities.” The sixth - an assessment for relicensing the Walterville project - would be delayed until 2030, allowing that project to continue generating electricity.

It’s estimated restoring power generation would come at a cost of between $117 and $230 per megawatt hour. In comparison, buying power from the Bonneville Power Administration now costs $33 per megawatt hour.

“It’s not economically feasible relative to the alternatives that we have,” Lawson said. “We’re not just obligating the utility to generate at the site for another 40 years. It’s more like 90 to 100 years.”

Projecting what the future could hold was a concern for vice chair Sonya Carlson who questioned how long the utility could depend on a run-of-the-river project. “How much water will actually be flowing through?” she asked, adding that “the climate is changing. It’s going to look different.”

Board chairman John Brown agreed, saying he was concerned that if the Leaburg project was returned to service it might have to shut down ten years later. “We could spend $250 million to get it back running and then another $300 million tearing it down. So it’s a huge financial risk if we return to service and flows are such that we can’t really use it.”

Though board members all seemed to favor permanently shutting down Leaburg, no vote was taken. They are planning to vote in January on a “Record of Decision” authorizing staff to carry out the partial decommissioning of the project. Lawson said he will work to develop a process to keep commissioners informed periodically over the next several years. He also said if a funding source is identified that would cover the costs of restoring the entire project area to natural conditions (similar to what existed prior to construction in 1928) EWEB would explore that option.


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