The LePage administration is looking anew at Maine’s old dams, mills and hydropower facilities as a way to increase electricity generation.

The Governor’s Energy Office wants to hire a consultant to inventory the state’s hydro-electric facilities – both large and small – and recommend regulatory changes to encourage expansion.

The consultant’s job will be to look for potential technological upgrades at existing hydropower facilities and to identify dams and former saw and grist mills that are not generating electricity today but have “realistic development potential.”

Linda Smith, senior planner in the Governor’s Energy Office, stressed that the upcoming study will look at ways to capitalize on existing hydropower in Maine, not build new dams.

“It’s not about adding new dams and it is not about adding new impoundments of any kind,” Smith said. “It is about trying to identify what we have currently.”

The initiative, which will be part of a comprehensive energy report presented to state lawmakers every two years, reflects the administration’s focus on hydropower at a time when the national conversation is focused on dam removal.

Roughly 22 percent of Maine’s in-state electricity production came from hydropower in 2010, more than any other source of renewable energy, according to the most recent federal statistics.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage touts hydropower as a resource to help lower Maine’s energy costs and frequently talks of purchasing agreements with Canadian hydropower producers. By contrast, LePage has said he is skeptical of wind power – the state’s fastest-growing renewable energy sector.

Maine has more than 600 dams listed on the National Inventory of Dams maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The actual number of dams and impoundments is believed to exceed 1,000, however, because the Army Corps’ list excludes structures smaller than 4 feet.

Many of those structures were built to support small mills or to control water flow during the decades when Maine’s rivers were the highways used to transport timber to sawmills.

The Governor’s Energy Office is setting aside $100,000 to $125,000 to pay a consultant to conduct the inventory and explore areas for expansion, including opportunities for wave- and tidal-energy.

The request for proposals states that “the final product of this analysis would be policy recommendations, including regulatory changes, to allow and encourage cost-effective expansion of the resource.”

“Maine has not assessed its hydropower resources since the early 1990s,” Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said in a statement.

“Since that time, additional technologies have been developed, some right here in Maine, and numerous studies from the Department of Energy have highlighted significant hydropower potential. It is time to review whether we can expand our hydropower resources with these new technologies, in a manner that works for our environment as well as our economy.”

Jeff Reardon, the brook trout project director with the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited, said there are certainly places in Maine where there is potential to increase hydropower generation.

But Reardon said he was concerned that the bid proposal did not stress the importance of also evaluating the environmental challenges of reviving hydropower production at some sites.

“They are looking at the cost and the regulatory hurdles of some of the sites, but they are not looking at the environmental conditions,” said Reardon, who plans to meet with Woodcock this week to discuss the proposal.

Perhaps the best example of expanding hydropower production, Reardon said, was the multi-party agreement that led to the removal of the Veazie and Great Works dams on the Penobscot River, re-opening thousands of miles of habitat to Atlantic salmon, shad and other sea-run fish. As part of the agreement, the dam owner was allowed to increase power production at six other dams in the watershed to more than compensate for the decreased production.

“There are a lot of dams on the landscape that probably are not going anywhere in the foreseeable future, and we might be able to find a way to use them smarter than we are today,” Reardon said.

Smith pointed to another project in Freedom that she said illustrates the administration’s goal of tapping into existing, often smaller hydropower infrastructure rather than building new dams.

Toni Grassi, a businessman living in Camden, purchased a dilapidated former mill on the edge of Freedom Falls in 2012. Two years later, the fully restored, 180-year-old mill building now houses a home-schooling “learning community” as well as a restaurant.

Sometime this winter, Grassi hopes to install a 50-kilowatt hydropower turbine in the basement of the building that once housed the gristmill. Grassi said he expects the turbine will produce enough electricity to power the businesses in The Mill at Freedom Falls with the excess flowing back into the power grid, for which he will receive credit for electricity usage at his family’s other businesses and homes.

Grassi said Monday that he strongly supports removing dams or improving fish passage on rivers and streams that are important to sea-run species. But he believes there are other examples of former mills or dams in Maine that pose much less environmental challenges.

“If this was a dam that should have come out for environmental purposes, I wouldn’t have done this,” Grassi said of his project.