CAMDEN — Since 2008, when Joe Sawyer donated the Seabright Dam Hydroelectric Facility to Camden, the town has tried to make the alternative energy venture work. Water coursing down from Megunticook Lake over the dam powered two turbines at a strong enough clip to produce approximately 94 kilowatts of energy, all of it routed to the New England power grid via Central Maine Power.
But equipment failures and mounting costs associated with the 1888-built dam compelled the Camden Select Board to unanimously vote March 7 to pull Seabright from the Federal Energy Regulation Commissions roster of power-producing dams.
“It appears to me that probably we shouldn’t spend up to $126,000 to lose $3,000 to $4,000 a year,” said Select Board member Marc Ratner, who cited the projected costs of fixing facility components.
According to David Bolstridge, who is superintendent of Camden’s wastewater department, the newest generator at the Seabright Dam failed in 2016. It was only five years old.
Bolstridge spoke to the Camden Select Board at its regularly scheduled meeting and he told the town it would cost $12,000 to replace that generator.
On top of that, the hydroelectric facility needs new control panels, which protect the generators and transmit the power to the CMP system. That would require a further investment of $70,000 to $100,000.
Then there is the need to rebuild the other generator at the dam, and conduct a five-year safety, FERC-required safety survey of the dam.
In total, he said, dam repairs and costs could reach $156,000 for fiscal year 2017-2018.
Bolstridge had hired a dam engineer to assess the Seabright Dam.
“The dam engineer found our control panels are inadequate in protecting our generators and ensuring smooth transmission of power to CMP’s system,” said Bolstridge. “....The engineer stated if we are unable to make this upgrade to our system, he recommends we no longer generate power.”
He continued: “Note we are scheduled to complete our five-year FERC required independent engineer safety review of the dam. In the FY 2018 dam budget I included $19,500 to complete this review. If we permanently stop power generation we will no longer be subject to FERC regulations and this review would no longer be required. Going forward we would only be required to meet Maine’s dam regulations, and MEMA would be the regulating authority. FERC does not require small generating dams that generate 10 MW or less, that build at an existing dam, to obtain a FERC license. However, FERC requires small generation facilities apply for a license exemption. This license exemption process is extensive and requires engineering, geologic bore sampling, wildlife and historical preservation impact studies.”
Camden industry relied on hydropower during its settlement and ensuing centuries of industry. At one point, there were 16 power-generating sites on the Megunticook River between the foot of the lake and the head of the harbor.
In 1984, Joe Sawyer bought the Seabright Dam. Sawyer was a local inventor and “born tinkerer,” according to the history book Where the Mountains Meet the Sea. He had grown up in Camden in a family that valued inventiveness and was constantly building something.
Sawyer was educated at Maine Maritime Academy and Wentworth Institute in Boston. He returned to Camden, worked at Tibbetts Industries and eventually became executive vice president there. But he loved water turbines, and after retiring, he built two, which generated power at the Seabright Dam.
In 2007, he bequeathed the dam to Camden.
In 2015, a group of students from the independent Watershed School took on the Seabright Dam as a class project to remotely monitor dam operations, and a group of Camden Hills Regional High School students explored generating power at the Montgomery Dam at the head of Camden Harbor.
Today, the only remaining power generating dam is the Seabright.
But the cost is too much for the town, the Select Board decided.
As a hydroelectric dam, the Seabright helped offset Camden’s use of electricity, but not enough to make it financially workable, according to numbers supplied by Bolstridge.
Seabright currently generates approximately 276,000 kilowatt hours on an annual basis. That power is routed back to the regional electric grid, and the town shaves the retail value of that Seabright-produced energy off its monthly Central Maine Power bill through a net energy billing arrangement.
In order to protect that power arrangement with CMP, the town would need to rebuild its panels, and that, said Bolstridge, “is a lot of money for a little dam that only generates a little bit of power.”
He suggested mothballing the dam to prevent freezing and cracking of the dam intakes, valves and turbines.
He also recommended installing steel plates with gaskets on the intakes leaving the intake valves open to purge water from the piping.
The decommissioning would also include returning three rental transformers to CMP.
“From 2009 to 2016, we lost around $10,000,” said Select Board member Don White. “It doesn’t make any common sense or is it fiscally responsible to continue that.”
The town will, however, be spending $25,000 to repair the dam itself, which has caused headaches for Megunticook River residents with falling water levels.
Divers are to “chink it up so it doesn’t leak under the powerhouse,” said Bolstridge.
“Seabright hydro was a feel good, green exercise,” said Acting Town Manager Roberta Smith. “The town has put a lot of effort and support but the numbers don’t make sense anymore.”
In the end, the Select Board authorized Smith to begin the process of decommissioning the Seabright Dam.