March 13, 2010

Maine eyed for hydro project UNDERGROUND HYDROPOWER PROPOSAL

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

Wiscasset is being considered for the largest energy development proposal -- and potentially the largest development project of any kind -- in the history of the state.

A Toronto entrepreneur who has developed Canadian wind farms has floated the idea of building a massive $2 billion underground hydropower station at the old Maine Yankee nuclear power station site.

The project would be one of the first of its kind anywhere.

The proposal raises questions about impacts on the Back River and groundwater, and it would use as much energy as it creates.

But local and state officials, as well as environmentalists and others who fought an earlier proposal for a $1.5 billion coal gasification plant at the site, said the idea has a lot of appeal because of its potential to create jobs and help develop the state's clean-energy infrastructure.

''It's something new. It's innovative,'' said Arthur Faucher, town manager in Wiscasset.

''If this project proves to be as good as it sounds, that would be a good thing for Wiscasset, for Maine and for the environment,'' said Sean Mahoney, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation.

The plans presented by Riverbank Power Corp. in recent meetings here and on its Web site (www.riverbankpower. com) call for the construction of cavernous reservoirs and a three-story-tall power plant carved out of the bedrock 2,000 feet beneath the ground. At times of peak electricity demand, tidal water from the Back River would surge straight down four large chutes, through power-generating turbines and into the caverns, each of which would be 100 feet tall and 1,000 feet long.

Then, when electricity demand is low and there is excess power going into the grid, the water would be pumped back to the surface.

The plant -- called an Aquabank -- would operate in six- to eight-hour bursts and generate 1,000 megawatts of power, more than Maine Yankee used to and more than all of Maine's hydro dams combined. It would make a profit by using power when the price is low and selling when it's high.

Although the system would use at least as much energy to pump out the underground reservoirs as it generates when filling them, experts say the power-storage system could help Maine make the shift from fossil fuels to cleaner renewable power sources.

''It's not adding new energy to the state of Maine,'' said Habib Dagher, a professor of engineering at the University of Maine and a proponent of offshore wind power. ''But it's like buying a big battery for your house and storing energy in it. It's a huge battery.''

There are pump-storage systems around the world that use surface reservoirs, but none below ground, he said.

The idea could be especially valuable because of the state's goal of developing 3,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2020, according to Dagher and others.

Because wind turbines spin whenever the wind blows, including at night, rather than when the energy demand is greatest, wind farms alone can't entirely replace fossil fuel plants. A system like the Aquabank can store that energy for the peak demand, ''a very beneficial thing potentially to the offshore wind market,'' Dagher said.

FOURTEEN SITES IN THE RUNNING

Riverbank's chief executive officer, John Douglas, is pitching the project as Maine's wind battery.

''This project is entirely consistent with what the state is trying to do,'' Douglas said in an interview Friday.

The use of wind or renewable power to pump out the reservoirs at night would make the Aquabank a clean source of carbon-free power, according to the company.

Douglas spent several days meeting with community leaders, state officials and environmentalists in midcoast and southern Maine late last month, and plans to return for two days this week.

''Community support is obviously a big factor here,'' he said. ''I think the response has been very good. People are genuinely curious about it.''

Douglas assured officials and neighbors that he has both the financial backing and the technical capacity to pull off the project. ''We're highly confident,'' he said.

Douglas created his own wind energy company, Ventus, in 2003, and sold it last year for $124 million, according to published reports.

''I think he's the real deal,'' said Willy Rich, a leader of the effort to reject the coal gasification plant last year. ''The guy's got a track record.''

The 327-acre Wiscasset site is one of 14 potential locations around North America that Douglas is studying. He ultimately plans to build five of the new underground hydro plants, and has said Wiscasset is a strong candidate.

The site has a water supply connected directly to the ocean, electricity transmission lines left behind by Maine Yankee, rail access for the construction and a foundation of solid Maine bedrock, he said.

The company is expected to drill into the granite bedrock this fall for more detailed assessments.

''We're hopeful Wiscasset is one of the sites we move forward on,'' he said.

Douglas said he'll narrow down the potential sites during the next two years and will be applying for various state and federal permits in the meantime. ''It's going to be a much-studied process,'' he said.

The plant's construction, which Douglas describes as ''Canadian mining 101,'' would take four years and employ an estimated 1,000 people.

Riverbank's primary financial partner is New York investment management firm BlackRock Inc., which has provided $5 million for the initial evaluation of sites.

Aside from what many see as the potential energy benefits to the state, the plant would more than fill the void in the local tax base left by the closure of Maine Yankee.

Riverbank describes the proposed plant as quiet, clean and harmless to the environment and neighbors.

State officials and others said that while that may be true, there are a number of questions to explore about the impact of such an unusual and massive project.

''The scope and scale is mind-boggling,'' said Dana Murch, who reviews hydropower projects for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. ''This would be far the largest project Maine has ever seen.''

ECOLOGICAL IMPACT TO BE STUDIED

The combined water intake of the plant would be 7,600 cubic feet per second, or twice the typical late-summer flow of the Penobscot River at Bangor, Murch said. The mining operation would remove an estimated 16 million tons of rock, Murch said.

Questions range from how the diversion of tidal water would affect aquatic life, including lobsters and endangered Atlantic salmon, to whether the ocean water could seep into drinking water aquifers. The plant and reservoirs themselves would be located deep beneath freshwater aquifers.

Conservationists and others said they need to learn more about the potential effects on fisheries and the environment. But they don't see any immediate deal breakers.

Douglas seems to have a good understanding of the site and the technical challenges, said Peter Arnold, the alternative energy coordinator for the Chewonki Foundation. Chewonki operates an environmental education center next to the plant site and played a key role in the debate over the coal plant.

''I'm intrigued,'' Arnold said, ''and really hopeful that it all works out.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.comSwitchyard and

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